I remember when I first told people I was pregnant for the first time, nearly nine years ago. I distinctly remember the responses from co-workers who were also parents and their responses were along the lines of “If you think you have no time now, you definitely won’t when the baby comes along” and “that’s it now, you’re time is no longer your own until your children are much older”. I smiled and thought, ‘I’ll be different’. How wrong I was.
Nine years on and two children later, I have learnt so much. I think being a parent has to be the biggest personal development program you’ll ever go on, particularly for a woman. Below are eight key things I have learnt about being a mum while having a career in professional services.
Not everyone will share your view of what good parenting is.
It is so dependent on your situation, views and experiences. I chose to go back to work fulltime after nine months off with both of my children. Mainly because I thought they would need me more when they got older and I would plan to be more around for them then. This raised a few eyebrows, even from HR. I found it really challenged me and my beliefs, mainly because people were keen to remind me that most women return part-time and I was an unusual case. Early on I questioned whether I was a good mother because I enjoyed being at work and wanted to continue my career. I have since learnt that going to work makes me a better parent and that there is no right or wrong way to raise children as nobody can completely understand you or your situation. As a result it is really important for you and your partner to discuss what good parenting means for both of you and come up with a shared view.
Nobody will look after your child/ren as well as you do.
This is a hard one and it doesn’t mean you should settle for less. It just means that you need to choose carefully and feel that whoever you have selected to do this, is working in yours and your child/ren’s interests. With all the different kinds of care available it is important to recognise that as discerning as you are, so are they. And when you find the right people value them highly and treat them well because it isn’t always easy finding someone you and your children like.
You need to be honest with yourself and define what career success means for you.
Before I had my first child and even afterwards I was working my way to being the head of the function and being able to make all of the decisions. By the time I had my daughter nearly four years later, I found I was more motivated by doing interesting work with great people. Your priorities change and your definition of success changes. I work with some lawyer mums who are very keen to progress their career and as a result continue to work at the same pace as before they had their child. They also have the family arrangements in place that enable them to come to work and be the best they can be. Equally there are also others who were comfortable working on the less time critical matters which are intellectually stimulating and give them more manageable hours. Some choose to go into non-billable roles which keep their skills up until such time they are ready to go back into practice. Others decide to look for an in-house role that will accommodate their professional and family needs, with the view to returning to private practice when they are ready or perhaps never.
Identify what support you need on a home front.
This is particularly important when you have other people depending on you. I have learnt that children like consistency. For that to be possible I had to discuss with my husband what he could commit to and what I could realistically commit to with regards to care for our child/ren. In our situation we don’t have family living around the corner so to fill the gaps we outsourced what we couldn’t do. Initially we had a nanny working for us four hours a week, 5pm – 7pm. By the time we had our second child, our roles were more demanding of our time and as a result we now have a nanny who looks after our two children three days a week from 2-8pm. In this role she is responsible for the children’s washing, changing their bedsheets, fetching them from school/daycare, night time routine and cooking our dinner. This currently works for us although I know it’s a phase we’re going through and in time we will need to make adjustments again. For some senior practitioners I work with they have a week day nanny and a weekend nanny. Others have an au pair and some share their nanny depending on their needs. In some firms they have mothers/parent networking groups and also have emergency care arrangements set up for fee-earning staff who work long hours paid for by the firm. It may be worth finding out what your employer provides.
Be flexible and speak up when it’s not working.
There will be times when the arrangements you have put in place will need adjusting either because circumstances have changed or you have a morning CLE/networking event to attend. See if one of your other supports or your partner can swap with you. I didn’t consider swapping when my husband phoned me and asked if I could take the kids instead of him because he had to be at work early. It took me until the fourth request to realise what was happening and that was when I started saying, “I can do that and what are you going to do instead?” This meant that there was a fair exchange for the swap and I wasn’t taking on all of his responsibilities. If you aren’t able to work out a fair exchange it can quickly turn to resentment.
Train those around you at work.
Nowadays many have caring responsibilities, you won’t be alone. In most cases people are understanding about care arrangements and will look to work around them particularly if you are open about what you can and can’t do on your days off or when you can work late. At least then they can consider what work to give you and how to structure a team so that it can work for everyone. There is nothing more frustrating for a partner/supervisor of work than learning very late in the day that you can’t complete the work because you didn’t mention you had to leave the office to pick up your children. To manage a flexible worker or to work to time limits does take more planning but it isn’t something that can’t be done. It is harder managing someone on a flexible arrangement or with limited time commitments so help your supervisor by providing a solution so that they have confidence they will have the work ready for the client when it is needed. This may require you to develop a more junior lawyer to work more closely with you. Remember not to be that lawyer who has great work life balance only because the rest of the team are working odd hours or around the clock to make up for it.
Consider which networking and business development events you enjoy and get value from and leverage those to build your brand and profile.
I am sure if you looked, you could go to an event every morning and evening of the week if you wanted to. Depending on your situation, work out what events make sense to go to or what your availability is and only make exceptions when you really have to. I remember working with a very successful part time partner who only went to breakfast events and was very disciplined with the number of networking/business development events she attended during the working day. She also collaborated with some colleagues who could go to events she couldn’t. This meant she was still getting good information even if she wasn’t able to attend.
Find your support network.
Behind every great lawyer is a group of people supporting, mentoring and wanting to see them succeed. Notice who these people are for you and if they are serving you and your cause well. If they are, then great and if not, it may be time to make some changes. These are the people who you trust, who can give you a reality check, you can vent with, blow off steam with or ask their opinions. In my experience this works well for those who have a combination of work colleagues, friends, lawyers and non-lawyers to fulfil those roles.
Remember to say thank you.
I know it sounds obvious but you would be surprised how grateful those around you will be when you recognise their efforts and are seen to actively support them. Irrespective of your law firm structure the reality is, people find a way to work with and for those they like and respect. I know a part time partner who cultivated a group of followers while she was a senior associate and special counsel and now has a ‘ready made’ team as a partner. These people supported her in her absence, found matters that she could supervise them on and were always available to work with her. Admittedly she is a lovely person however I think providing others with recognition and supporting them was a key contributor to them looking out for her too.
These are in no way a complete list of my learnings. I am still learning and making adjustments along the way. No doubt when my daughter starts school next year we will go through another phase as a family and need to make adjustments again.
About Martine Barclay (M: 0427 357 607 or www.redefineyouredge.com.au)
Martine has over twenty years experience developing professionals and she now runs her own coaching, mentoring and leadership development practice. After working in the talent development area for nearly six years with lawyers at Norton Rose Fulbright and King & Wood Mallesons, and being married to a partner in a law firm, Martine really understands the challenges female lawyers face in practice.