Balancing a law career and family life
The Law Society, The Bar Council and the Inns of Court all openly acknowledge that parents with law careers face particular challenges because of long hours, heavy workloads and inflexible working practices. The good news is there have been some recent changes for the better.
Until recently, law firms didn’t have a great reputation for generous parental-leave provision. The fact that just over half of those entering the profession are now women has undoubtedly prompted a number of larger firms to revise their policies during the past decade.
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer is reported to be the most generous, with 26 weeks full pay, six weeks half pay, seven weeks Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) and 13 weeks unpaid. A number of other firms, including Linklaters, CMS and Simmons & Simmons, offer close to this sum, although they all vary in how and when it’s paid. Some small firms don’t offer anything beyond SMP.
Since 2015, the Shared Parental Leave (SPL) law allows for mothers to transfer some of their leave to their partner. There are a number or conditions that have to be met around employment, earnings, timings, shared responsibility and evidence. There are circumstances where SPL could impact on the enhanced protection from redundancy, but I’m sure I don’t have to advise lawyers about reading the small print.
For self-employed barristers, remuneration can be negligible, but chambers are making attempts to be more accommodating. The Bar Standards Board (BSB) requires them to offer a rent waiver for six months. The Bar Council prefers chambers to extend this waiver period and also offer reduced rent on return to allow for re-establishing the practice. A number do offer this enhanced support and some include a parental loan on returning to practice, plus the option to apply for an extended period of leave of up to two years. In 2017 the BSB also ruled that all self-employed barristers were entitled to parental leave, so fathers can now also take up to a year off.
Returning to work
Improvements in parental-leave provision are a step in the right direction, but families face bigger challenges when returning to work. Law firms are simply not set up to accommodate part-time or flexible working in senior positions. Barristers face similar challenges with unpredictable court times and travel thrown into the mix. If you do manage to negotiate part-time hours, the role still may not offer enough flexibility to cope with the unpredictable nature of child care. Paid-for care has its limitations, but if you have a partner in a more flexible profession who is willing to take on the bulk of the parenting, this could be a solution.
If you want to balance work and family, rather than squeeze parenting in around work, you’ll have to make some tough decisions. It’s possible to find more flexible roles, but you may have to rethink your career trajectory and earning potential. If your ambition has always been to fly high at a Magic Circle firm or get Silk, you’ll need to face hard facts about the impact this will have on your family time.
If your desire for work-life balance wins out over salary, then moving to an in-house role in the private or public sector is worth exploring. If you’re currently in London, you could also consider looking for a role in a smaller firm outside of the capital, which may be able to accommodate more flexibility. For barristers, an employed role could also mean working in a range of organisations such as local or central government, the armed forces or commercial companies. You’ll lose earnings potential and will no longer be you own boss, but you will gain a regular income and more time at home. Switching roles may seem like admitting defeat, but it could in fact enable you to regain control of your career and home life.
Attitudes are shifting in the profession, but there are still major barriers to changing working practices, such as client expectations and the unpredictability of the court system. It will take time to find solutions, but at least the problems are recognised and there’s a willingness to consider change within the profession.