Prepare for re-entry

Practitioners share their career break experiences: plan ahead, prepare for challenges and a well-supported return is possible

CHAMBERS SUPPORT: CHANGING ATTITUDES

Michael Todd QC, Head of Erskine Chambers and Chairman of the Counsel Editorial Board

Career breaks come in all shapes and sizes: some are short term, others longer term; some are career-based whilst others are simply a sabbatical (whatever that term might be intended to convey); some are entirely voluntary whereas others are enforced as a matter of personal circumstance.

In the ‘good old days’ of the late 1970s/early 80s, career breaks of a voluntary nature were viewed with suspicion. Were those seeking a career break thinking of leaving the Bar, or, even worse, moving chambers? A voluntary career break was a matter of personal choice; surely, the member of chambers wishing to take a break must bear the cost of that break? Short-term career breaks, to enable members or staff to undertake caring responsibilities, were more readily accepted. But, even then, attitudes varied dramatically depending on the reason. The support of chambers as a whole, as distinct from individual members, to the provision of financial support was virtually non-existent. Fortunately, most chambers have come a long way since then.

When I decided to stand for election as Vice Chairman for 2011, and, subsequently, as Chairman of the Bar for 2012, I was delighted to receive not only moral support, but also financial assistance, from my chambers. Relief from a liability for chambers expenses during my year as Chairman was a substantial benefit and I remain very grateful to all members of chambers for their generosity.

Nevertheless, my career break had a considerable financial impact. I estimate that my time as Vice Chairman and Chairman ‘cost’ the equivalent of some three to four years’ income. I do not complain about that. It was my choice. I would do the same again. And, as a company lawyer, I was able to bear that reduction in my income. Far greater sacrifices are made by those whose practices are dependent on publicly funded, or less well remunerated, work, and wish or need to take a career break.

Good planning is essential. Chambers and those contemplating taking a career break should prepare for the following:

  • Unless some arrangement can be reached with chambers, liability for chambers expenses will continue to accrue during the break.
  • Receipts may have declined as the amount of work capable of being undertaken prior to the break may have reduced.
  • There may be little or no opportunity during the break for undertaking remunerated work, thereby deferring or precipitating a financial crisis upon a return to work.
  • The value of hard-earned reputations and relationships built up over many years, may quickly be diminished and replaced by those of others available to undertake the work, thereby requiring a practice to be rebuilt.
  • Rebuilding a practice, to the extent that is possible, may take a considerable time, and will require substantial support from within chambers.
  • The ability to rebuild a practice may be hampered by the fact that all members of chambers are self-employed and are likely to guard jealously the work they have, the work they expect to have, or would like to get.
  • It may be necessary to build an entirely new practice.
  • Whilst practice building is under way, expenses, and other additional costs, will continue to accrue.

Even in my advanced years of practice I have, in differing degrees, experienced each of those issues upon my return to practice. The extent to which chambers will assist is in part, obviously, a function of how chambers views career breaks: whether it perceives there to be any benefit to chambers from members and staff taking career breaks and, importantly, whether and, if so, how chambers as a whole values its individual members, and members of staff, as the case may be.

At the end of the day, honesty is the best policy. In my view, strength in depth is an ingredient of a successful set of chambers. That should inform our approach to career breaks. The issue should now be: how do we retain within chambers the services of those who, previously, on the basis of their ability and value to chambers, we have invited to become members of chambers? That too should inform our policy towards career breaks.

 

MOTHERHOOD X 5: OVERCOMING THE SCEPTICS

Tana Adkin QC, Charter Chambers

I was called to the Bar in 1992 and have had considerable experience of combining motherhood with a career. I am lucky enough to have five children and the arrival of each was a completely different experience.

My first child arrived while I was still a pupil. I returned to chambers after six weeks, leaving my baby with family, determined to complete my pupillage on time. Both my pupil master and a senior female barrister (now a Lady Justice) were supportive which kept me going but my then senior clerk was sceptical about combining family with a career at the Bar and expected me to leave. This only made me more determined to stay. Fortunately whilst sorting out expressing breast milk in the toilets at Kingston Crown Court I met a wonderful female barrister who suggested I join her chambers as a 3rd six pupil.

After that I was offered a tenancy at a third set, which I accepted, and the relief was such that soon Number Two was on the way. Late in my pregnancy and in the Court of Appeal my husband was waiting behind the court in Carey Street with the engine running and our daughter was born a couple of hours after the hearing. This time around I had the luxury of three months’ maternity leave. After that, both my young children were with childminders or in a nursery, and long hours and missed childhoods followed. Looking back, I wish I had managed my time at home and work better but I can’t change the past.

With my third child I had six months off, but this was due to illness, not planning. By the time I got back to work my successful criminal practice had all-but disappeared. It was very disheartening to start from scratch again. My clerk at the time was sympathetic and did his best to start to fill my diary but I decided to contact all my solicitors to advise them of my return and worked hard to get my practice back.

When our fourth arrived five years later, however, I had joined Charter Chambers, a more family-friendly set and six months’ maternity leave wasn’t seen as a problem. The balance between work and family became easier to manage with understanding colleagues as well as clerks. My planning was better this time, keeping in touch with solicitors and my clerks whilst I was on leave.

When my fifth child came along, nearly six years ago, a problem arose which disrupted my planning. There was a case I was committed to which comfortably fitted with four months’ maternity leave but it was brought forward by two months and moved to a different court. Consequently there followed an exhausting and stressful effort to manage feeding and get ‘court fit’ within eight weeks. I was determined, having come so far, to keep going and an excellent childminder and family support got me through.

When my youngest started nursery I had time to reflect upon my career, and with more planning, support from my clerks and colleagues, judges and loyal solicitors, I was in a position to apply for Silk, which I took this year.

The Bar Council has demonstrated a commitment to people like me, who want to have a family and continue at the Bar – not unreasonable in 2017, but how unrealistic it seemed to some back in 1992. Planning is all-important for those about to go on maternity and paternity leave and so is contact during the break period: it’s important to know you haven’t been forgotten and to believe that there’s something worth going back to. A strong support network including safe and flexible childcare and sympathetic financial arrangements such as I have enjoyed at Charter, are essential. Having run the gamut of maternity leave scenarios myself, I’m glad that things have improved to the extent they have and that we now seem to have joined the 21st century. 

 

SERIOUS ILLNESS: THE UNPLANNED CAREER BREAK

Catherine Callaghan, Blackstone Chambers

Back in 2007, I took a well-planned sabbatical from the English Bar, to go back to New Zealand (where I’m originally from) to teach public law at my former university in Wellington. That career break had a hugely beneficial effect on my public law practice when I returned to the Bar. However, six years later, another career break was forced on me by serious illness.

In August 2013, I was diagnosed with cancer. It was a bolt from the blue, although if I’m honest, I had known something was wrong with my health for some time and I had put off a check-up until the end of a busy court term. I ended up having surgery, followed by months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. I decided to stop work completely, to concentrate on my treatment and on getting well. My enforced career break lasted nearly a year.

My senior clerk and my chambers director were among the first people I told about my illness. They were brilliant. My clerks were able to clear my diary, return my cases, and together we agreed what they would tell clients and colleagues about why I was suddenly unavailable. It was really important to me to know that they were taking care of this, so that it was one less thing for me to deal with at a difficult time.

An unplanned career break like this can be very hard financially for a self-employed barrister. Luckily, I had income protection insurance, which gave me enough to live on while I was off sick. I would highly recommend all self-employed barristers to take out similar insurance, particularly if they can’t rely on someone else for income. I also entered into an arrangement with my chambers to reduce the burden of my chambers rent.

I used the time off to consider my priorities, and think about how I wanted my practice to develop on my return. Getting cancer makes you realise that nothing is more important than your health, and I promised myself that I would not work as hard as I had done previously or get so stressed about my cases (a promise I haven’t always managed to keep). I developed a business plan which I discussed with my clerks before returning to practice. In my business plan, I set out my goals for my practice over the next five years (which included achieving a better work/life balance with a focus on interesting public and regulatory work from a more varied client base). I also set out my ideal practice profile by area of law and client type, my ideal earnings, and key new clients and areas of work to target. My clerks were very receptive to the plan, and helped me to implement it.

I was worried at first that I would have no practice left to come back to. But I found that all my previous clients came back. Those clients who knew what had happened to me were incredibly supportive. As most of my clients are government departments and regulatory bodies, it’s also possible some of them may not have noticed I had been away. I also gained new clients and a variety of new and interesting cases. I rapidly found myself working full time again, and although my brain felt a little rusty for a few months, it soon felt as though I had never been away. But this time around, I’m looking after myself better and enjoying my cases more. Ironically, work (and life generally) is better now than before I got sick. And looking back, I’ve achieved all of the goals I set for myself in my business plan. 

 

PATERNAL LEAVE: TACTICS AND LOGISTICS

Ben Ray, Legal - Deputy Director, Responsible Business Practices and Better Regulation, Government Legal Department

I took two and a half months of parental leave immediately following the birth of my son, James, and would warmly recommend it to other soon-to-be fathers.

I was fortunate that the parental leave package offered by the Government Legal Department made the financial balancing act much more straightforward than it would have been if my employer had only paid parental leave at the statutory rate. It also made a big difference working for a boss who I knew wouldn’t react to my application with horror and in an organisation where I was confident it wouldn’t be secretly held against me. Indeed, the biggest challenge when deciding whether to apply was overcoming my phobia of filling in forms. Having missed a holiday following three incorrect passport applications, it was no little relief to see my pay actually appear in my account when on parental leave.

That said, taking time out did throw up some tricky professional decisions. Just after applying for parental leave, a promotion I really wanted in another government department was advertised, but with a start date coinciding with the beginning of my leave period. My instinctive reaction was not to apply. But I decided it was a mistake to select myself out. I then wrestled with whether to mention my leave when sending in the application form. On reflection, I’m glad that I was up-front from the outset (not least because the government department to which I was applying was responsible for the introduction of shared parental leave). I think my prospective employers respected me for being transparent and it avoided an awkward situation when, happily, I was offered the job.

As to the logistics, the trickiest part was deciding when to schedule my leave. As the scheme was still very new, there weren’t any other fathers to turn to for advice about it. But eventually, my wife and I decided that I should take the two and a half months immediately after the baby’s birth so that we could both be around to support one another during the initial mayhem.

As I’m sure any new parent will tell you, those first few months do present a steep learning curve. In contrast to the rosy-hued vision I had of our new family life, my wife and I sometimes felt like two shift-workers – with each grumbling about the work of the shift before. But I have such powerful memories of those first weeks in my son’s life. Time passes very quickly, and it was a wonderful period for our new family. I’m certain I won’t ever regret taking two and half months out of what is, after all, a long career.

Returning to work was a challenge, but in some respects I think it was easier starting a new job. Taking time out also gave me space to think about how I wanted to do things when I returned, and spared my new colleagues having to deal with me on even less sleep. 

 

TO PARLIAMENT AND BACK: TRANSFERABLE SKILLS

Jessica Lee, 1 Garden Court Family Law Chambers

Following university, I focused on my Bar career and established myself as a family practitioner in private practice in London chambers. Meanwhile, in pursuit of my teenage declaration that I was going to be a barrister and Member of Parliament, I progressed in my ‘spare time’ through building my political experience through the voluntary side of the party, running local branches, organising campaigns, and helping out at local advice surgeries for local counsellors.

I was selected as a candidate for Erewash and worked full time as a barrister right up to the 2010 General Election, whilst juggling my election campaign. This was quite a challenge. I overturned a majority of nearly 8,000 and won the seat with a swing of 10.4%. Suddenly I faced the prospect of being in Westminster on the Monday morning and not going back into court.

I was appointed as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve QC MP. Through this role, I learnt about the interface between the Civil Service and politicians. I also experienced, first-hand, the tensions between the rule of law and the world of politics, which have existed, of course, since time immemorial.

My experience as a barrister helped enormously in adjusting to the role as an MP. The obvious crossover of skills are advocacy and public speaking; debating and interpreting legislation and rules, and representing people. The topics covered by constituents at my weekly MP surgeries were varied and could be contentious, but the experience of speaking to clients in conference for years helped in preparing for this. The ‘new’ aspect to the job was the public element and dealing with press enquires. However, the legal training of thinking before speaking and staying on the point, helped with any interviews. Also, a number of new MPs found the travelling and the long hours quite a challenge. However, as a barrister, having travelled round the courts of England and Wales for many years, and managing the workload that goes with this, I didn’t think twice about the long hours and travel involved.

During my term as an MP I reflected and decided that although enjoying my experience as an MP, I still had plenty of goals and work I wanted to undertake as a barrister. I decided not to re-stand and instead to return to the Bar, full time, after the 2015 General Election. I had kept up a limited law practice whilst in Parliament, but I then had to consider a full-time move back to private practice.

The challenges were more about re-engaging with solicitors, chambers, clerks and colleagues. The biggest challenge was facing again the administrative responsibilities of the self-employed. This was not something I had missed and required some organisation, time and planning. Overall, the transition back has been smooth and I’m making the most of the new opportunities before me. I now have a particular understanding as to what is in the approach of ministers and the civil service take when approaching new legislation. This insight has been useful and appreciated by solicitors and clients alike. I was able to hold debates in Parliament on family law topics such as surrogacy reform and adoption. I understand the structures of Bill Committees, Select Committees and the parliamentary process, which is useful for my practice when changes to legislation come about.

I will always be involved and interested in both law and politics, but for me, this is an interesting and complementary fit.

 

THE CLERK'S ROLE: WHAT TO EXPECT

 

Training clerks on how to manage barristers on career breaks is a top priority for the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks, as Cliff Holland and Natalie Hearn explain

The appropriate management of career breaks is a serious issue for the Bar, in which clerks have a key role to play. As part of its annual conference in November 2016, the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks (IBC) provided further training on the issue which covered not only the correct management of parental leave, but of all sabbaticals, secondments, breaks for political campaigning and academic study leave.

Whilst the Bar has become more accommodating in some areas, women still make up a disproportionately low percentage of barristers. The BSB reports that only 35% of practising barristers are women, despite women making up 50% of those Called. The Bar must do more to reflect the balance and diversity of society. The management of career breaks can play a significant part in this, and the IBC is keen to contribute significantly to this issue.

Training is being rolled out across the UK through a regional roadshow, with seminars in Bristol and Birmingham already confirmed, and another seminar in London later this year. The training builds upon the already supportive nature of the role of clerks in assisting barristers. What is often lacking, however, is a formal process that is consistent across the board. The IBC training covers three broad principles of what the correct management of career breaks should consider, with the caveat that every chambers and every circumstance will require unique consideration.

(1) The need for top-to-bottom support within chambers

Senior clerks should not be the only people involved in supporting the career break. The support needs to come from the head of chambers, management committee, colleagues and staff.

(2) The need for formal procedure documents, and for these to reflect actual practice

A strong policy regarding parental leave is a requirement in the BSB Equality Rules and should already be in place in chambers. Much more difficult, however, is ensuring these documents truly reflect the practice that goes on. In addition, chambers should also consider its policy towards shared parental leave, and review their equality & diversity (or equal opportunities) policy to ensure career breaks are adequately covered.

(3) A checklist for all the activities relating to the management of career breaks should be created

The importance of a checklist for this process cannot be emphasised enough. This list should cover all the practical activities and questions to discuss with your barrister. This allows for a planned and considered team effort. The checklist is particularly useful during the break so the barrister is not ‘out of sight, out of mind’. The IBC training has a template of what should be included in your checklist, including:

  • Communication rules during leave – does the barrister want a complete break or should you call them with any exciting work? Who should contact them? How would they like to be contacted?
  • Conducting an initial meeting at the outset of the notification of their leave. Early notification by the barrister of their intention to have a career break will benefit the process hugely, and allow careful planning for before, during and after their leave.
  • A pre-leave meeting just before they go.
  • A meeting before they formally return to work – it is recommended that this should be at the barristers’ home or another convenient place. It should not necessarily be in chambers.
  • Catch-ups after they return to work and their practice – this should be more than once if required.

The objective of managing career breaks correctly is for the barrister, clerks and chambers involved to have a smooth and appropriate transition into and out of their career break, meaning that the barrister comes back to a satisfying practice that suits their needs. Realistic expectations should be set out from the beginning, and clear and honest communication should be at the forefront between barristers and clerks. In the end, the barrister should feel valued and cared for by their clerks and, ultimately, want to stay at your chambers and at the Bar.

Cliff Holland and Natalie Hearn, Matrix Chambers & Institute of Barristers’ Clerks

Career breaks for barristers: a regulatory perspective

In short, the Bar Standards Board (BSB) supports the idea that all barristers should be able to take career breaks.

Encouraging flexibility in working patterns helps the Bar retain experienced barristers, which is, of course, a benefit for consumers. As an example, statistics show that women do not progress to senior levels of the profession at the same rate as men and the BSB’s recent survey of women at the Bar explored some of the barriers that may exist. Providing flexibility to barristers who want to take career breaks when bringing up children, for example, may help to promote progression and retention.

The BSB recently consulted in this area when it sought views on whether or not self-employed barristers should enjoy similar rights to shared parental leave as employed barristers. The regulator is expected to publish the results of this consultation soon, and at the same time to outline how it intends to make its rules about parental leave more flexible for the self-employed Bar.

The new CPD scheme for established practitioners is another way in which the regulator hopes to support career flexibility within the Bar. The less prescriptive nature of the new scheme is better suited to barristers wishing to take breaks from practice, for example, for maternity leave.

Further information

The Bar Council’s parental support hub
The Bar Council’s career break advice pack

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