How to be a barrister and parent… and succeed at both

The working parent challenge is an issue affecting both men and women at the Bar. Ditch the ‘having it all’ myth, define your own version of success and learn how to live with compromise


Michelle Obama broke the bad news to working mothers whilst promoting her biography, Becoming: ‘That whole, “So you can have it all.” Nope, not at the same time. ‘That’s a lie,” Famously she went on to use colourful language to criticise Sheryl Sandberg’s philosophy around women leaning into their careers to succeed. There is a certain irony here, because in Sandberg’s Lean In book, she actually agrees with Obama, describing ‘Having it all’ as a myth.

This is not simply the domain of women, though. The Western Circuit Women’s Forum survey Back to the Bar: a survey of obstacles, aids and recommendations for parents returning to the Bar found that male barristers rarely took parental leave for any significant period (see bit.ly/2AXCCMP). Men at the Bar often experience a sense of obligation to return to work quickly, inextricably linked to the financial pressures of self-employment.

In an example from the survey, a male barrister ‘will not be open about his real problems juggling childcare responsibilities… because he feels he needs to “man up”.’ Wider, societal issues about gender roles/stereotyping clearly come into play.

So if ‘having it all’ is a lie and a myth for both women and men, how are we to be barristers, parents and succeed at both? The preferable question I think is to ask what our own definition of success is, and how that can be achieved as a working parent at the Bar.

No 'one size fits all'

For 19 years, I was a criminal barrister at Broadway House Chambers. In the latter five years of my career at the Bar, I started a family. It was then that I became all too familiar with the so-called ‘juggle’ between work and family life.

I have three children. With my first, I returned to full-time work after six months, before I felt ready. This was due to financial considerations and not wanting to step out for too long in case my career progression was hindered, a phenomenon known as ‘the maternity penalty’. Childcare was a combination of nursery and grandparents.

With my second, I increased maternity leave to 12 months. I returned when I was in a better position to do so. This time a nanny played mum whilst I paid her for the privilege of me returning to work.

"Having childcare support and laser sharp focus and boundaries will go a long way to support your success"

By child number three, I was ready for an extended period of maternity leave, which I had no interest in before.

These three, and very different, scenarios serve to illustrate that no ‘one size fits all’. Even within the same family, circumstances change. Deciding on the right childcare options requires a combination of creativity and flexibility.

Additionally, you should be realistic about your options and accepting of your choices. Being a parent means making daily compromises and decisions which you may not like, but can live with. How to do so is another matter.

Image versus reality

To those outside looking in, a successful barrister is confident, focused and present in whatever case they are instructed upon. They are available to undertake last minute case preparation outside of normal office hours. They go above and beyond to fight their client’s case.

They are also human, not robots or superheroes: parents, carers, people who may have been up all night with a demanding baby, or putting small children to bed late, then settling down to prepare a jury speech in to the small hours.

Yet there is an expectation that you show up next morning at court, ready to go, ‘game face’ engaged.

Preserving the image and living with compromise

Childcare

To give yourself the best chance of preserving the image and living with the invidious compromises that you, as a parent, inevitably have to make, childcare will have to be in place which is affordable and in which you feel confident. On the Western Circuit, those returning successfully did so with the assistance of significant shared care from partners or family members.

Flexible working arrangements are also important as a means by which to control your own schedule, the availability of which depends on the individual chambers, the clerking teams’ ability to break from traditional clerking practices, and whether or not your practice is court based.

The downside, however, according to the 2016 Bar Standards Board Report: Women at the Bar, is that for many, flexible working negatively impacted on the work women received and their career progression (see: bit.ly/2IHplMC).

This applies equally to men. At the Women Lawyers and Mothers launch event in Manchester in 2018, a male panel member working flexibly in a law firm recounted an occasion when he was deliberately discriminated against by a senior partner, who called in to question his commitment to his role and the firm due to him working flexibly.

Time management, focus & boundaries

Of the two-thirds who left the Bar on the Western Circuit over a six-year period, most cited difficulties balancing work and family commitments as a determining factor in their decision.

Having childcare support and laser sharp focus and boundaries will go a long way to support your success. For me, success is being the best version of myself through the choices I make, and accepting them. How do you define success for yourself?

Nikki Alderson, @NikkiAlderson2, is a former criminal barrister, now Corporate and Executive Coach supporting Chambers and law firms to attract and retain female talent within the legal profession, and empowering female lawyers to achieve career ambitions whilst creating congruent lives. www.nikkialdersoncoaching.com


What can be done to make it easier for parents to stay at the Bar?

To remain and succeed as a barrister parent, the first steps are to tackle the practical challenges around time management, efficiency and focus. You also need to establish clear boundaries. Here’s how:

  • Set, and stick to, boundaries: as Sandberg says, ‘the best way to make room for both life and career is to make choices deliberately.’ Have a conversation with yourself about where your limits are and communicate this to your clerks, so that they don’t just hear but understand you. You can then start effective boundary implementation, with the appropriate levels of support.
  • Be savvy about time ownership: we all have the same 24 hours in a day; how will you best utilise yours, to be at your most efficient and productive? If you haven’t read it, Brian Tracy’s book Eat that Frog has great tips on efficiency, prioritisation and avoiding procrastination.
  • Whichever hat (or wig) you are wearing in that moment, whether at work or at home, be focused on and fully present in it. This will reduce, if not eradicate, working parent guilt. To focus on what you are not doing at the point you are in ‘the other’ mode, will serve only to pile on the guilt in the bucket load.
  • Learn to say no. Keeping opportunities open is an important skill, but spreading yourself so thinly that you are doing everything badly rather than a few things well is not going to help the preservation of your competent barrister image, or indeed your own sense of wellbeing.

 

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Nikki Alderson

Nikki Alderson is a former criminal barrister. She is now a corporate and executive coach supporting chambers and law firms to attract and retain female talent within the legal profession and empowering female lawyers to achieve career ambitions whilst creating congruent lives (www.nikkialdersoncoaching.com).