The law of motherhood

How do female lawyers negotiate work and childcare?

Cherie Booth and Ed Miliband's fiancee Justine Thornton have done it, but how do other female lawyers negotiate work and childcare? Four of them told us how they managed it - or didn't.

"I've never met another single mother at the bar. There is a reason for that"

The best thing about being a barrister is that you are your own boss (self-employed - although of course you spend your legal life being told what to do by your clerks or solicitors). Until you become pregnant. Then it is the worst thing. No maternity pay and plenty of people to absorb your briefs in your absence. And then there is the return to work. Instead of coming back to the same salary level like lucky employed people, you come back to nothing except a devastated practice, having to pick up the pieces and start again - ingratiating yourself to solicitors, reminding the world that you are back and generally trying to show willing. Except, of course, everything has changed and you are not as willing as before (willing = being at your desk till midnight every night).

I never really planned anything outside my all-consuming professional life – not conception, not birth, not maternity leave. I had never intended to be a 39 year old single mother, nor (much worse) the sole provider. I had however intended to take maternity leave a month before my due date. Chambers' policy allows you 12 months off, which is extendable. There is also a financial policy in place which gives back, each month, those on parental leave a percentage of what they contributed in rent the previous year, for a maximum period of 12 months. Anyway, it never happened that way. I was working on an urgent judicial review claim about seven weeks before my due date when my waters broke. Off to hospital I went and my son was born about a week later, premature and oh so tiny and sweet. So much for maternity leave and shopping for baby clothes and enjoying the sunshine (he was born in August). The first few months were filled with the usual lack of sleep, a colic-stricken baby and an overdose of conflicting information on how to raise said baby. Just as life became more bearable and my baby boy more interactive, I panicked about money and my career and egged on by a friend and neighbour who had also had a baby, fell into a nanny share and back to work. He was seven and a half months old and still not sleeping through the night. After the thrill of walking without a baby, baby clobber and buggy (replaced by a cappuccino which you could actually finish) wore off, I sat at my desk wide-eyed, exhausted and wondering where to begin.

After 13 years of primarily criminal practice, I had bravely announced to my clerks that I was expanding my civil and public law practice as I needed more paperwork and less court (besides I could not travel around the country doing trials like I used to). Suffice it to say it was demoralising and a real struggle to reinvent myself professionally. I barely billed enough to pay the nanny. To top it all, these are very depressing times for us legal aid lawyers.

A year since I returned to work, I am in a somewhat better position. My son is settled at nursery full-time (excruciatingly expensive but he is happy there) and I am just about making the professional transition I wanted to. But – and it's a big but – I am excluded from various decision making processes because of the timings of meetings (Chambers' meetings are on a Sunday, practice team meeting usually at 5.30pm) as well as opportunities to schmooze solicitors. Nursery closes at 6.30pm. My mother is in another country, as is my sister, so no unpaid help. Each day I arrive at the nursery gates breathless. Often they charge me £15 for being five minutes late. Often my heart sinks or my heartbeat rockets because my son is sick and I am in the middle of a trial or due in court. Or a judge decides to sit late and I am in the other end of London from the one I need to be in.

My advice to other pregnant women at the bar? Get a partner if you don't have one already (or make sure your mother or some other family member lives next door), make sure chambers has a proper maternity policy including a return to work policy, claim your statutory maternity allowance, take the full year off as hopefully your baby will be sleeping through the night by then, find the childcare that suits you best (a full-time nanny if you can afford one means you can leave the house early and come back late when you need to) and don't be afraid to tell judges you have to leave to pick up your sprog. I've never met another single mother at the bar (I have met those who have subsequently split with their partners but still share the finances). There is undoubtedly a reason for that.

Maya Sikand

Garden Court Chambers

"I am more confident in my ability"

I was often told during pupillage and my early years at the bar that maternity leave was career suicide: that women either had to return to work really quickly to save their practice, or they came back with a half hearted approach to their careers. Thankfully, this is not how it has been for me, although I am in no rush to do it again!

I worked up to the day before I had my daughter (five days before her due date) so that all my maternity leave was after she arrived. The intention was to take six months off but my daughter was born with bleeds on her brain and was seriously ill, so that was extended to eight and a half months. I was lucky in that my chambers has good maternity provisions, which effectively meant no bills for a year.

I have now been back at work for nine months. I soon got back into the swing of working and after a month it felt like I had never been away. I was able to continue breastfeeding after I returned to work although this was only in mornings and evenings - I can't quite imagine asking a crown court judge for a break to express!

When my daughter was very young, we decided that my partner was going to be at home with her as much as possible. He now works two days a week, and my daughter is in nursery on those days. The opening hours aren't very convenient for barristers! I have had to limit how far I can travel on her nursery days to ensure that I am back in time for 6pm closing (I'm often there at 5:58pm and feel a bit guilty when my daughter is sat at the window with her coat on!). I think the fact my partner has largely stayed at home has allowed me to focus on my career. I sometimes encounter negative comments about working so much but I still spend plenty of time with my daughter and I know that she is happy.

My instructing solicitors were (and continue to be) extremely supportive. I have had to rethink my career in some ways and I now take on more personal injury work, which gives me a little more stability. All in all, I think I have returned to work a different person. I'm more focused on my future as I am now the 'breadwinner' of the family and I also think I am more confident in my ability. I find I am stricter with my criminal clients, and often tell them to mind their manners!

Cassie Williams

39 Park Square, Leeds

"Part-time flexible work fits with my family life"

I returned to work twice from maternity leave, once in October 2006 - I was then made redundant - and then in February 2009 with my new employer, with whom I now work flexibly part-time and from home, and this fits with my family life.

My bosses are very accommodating, and it works very well in terms of client care, because I deal with family law and so it is important for clients that I can be contacted if something urgent arises, rather than being told it is my day off. My employer has bought me a laptop and mobile phone to facilitate this.



"Something had to give, and in this sexist society it was me"

After qualifying as a barrister in 1997, I went on to become a solicitor in 2001, and now have two boys aged five and six. Having worked in the City of London for my entire career, my legal specialism is financial services and derivatives trading - not a particularly portable one, as I came to realise after having children.

I initially worked at City law firm Simmons & Simmons. I remember being the only young woman to join the department and being referred to as 'fund bird three' - so I knew what to expect. When I became engaged, the assumption was that I would stop working after I married. I realised now that the elder statesmen running the department were frightened that I would get pregnant on their time and be off for a year. They needn't have worried, as they managed to make life so unbearable that I left of my own accord. The same treatment was given to other females in the department. Any woman who clung on was swiftly moved into professional support work - a dead end job, with no partnership prospects. Their careers were over.

When I did get round to having children, I was working as an in-house lawyer for the asset management company Henderson Global Investors, in the City. I had been working as sole lawyer for one of the in-house funds prior to my maternity leave. When I returned I wanted to work part time. Sadly UK employment law only gives individuals (men and women) the right to ask to work part time and not the right to retain their old job on a part time basis. This is so weak as to be worthless, and many women are refused on the grounds that the business cannot accommodate their request - such an easy brush-off to concoct, and certainly one that many women, especially those who have just had a baby, find very difficult to challenge. I confess, I was one of them. I just accepted the new job I was given and was grateful for it, despite the fact that it meant a fundamental loss of status and proved to be catastrophically damaging to my career prospects. I went back to work three days a week and from that moment on my career was over at that company. I realised I had been written off but I was willing to put up with it as I wanted to have another child. After my second child - as those around were recruited and brought into the senior positions that I should have had - I decided it was time to make a move to another company and get on with my career. Of course it was only then I realised that there were no other part time jobs in my area of specialism at all, and I was right to be grateful for the reduced status, badly paid, dead end job that my old company had given to me. The only way to get my career back on track was to go back to work full time, barely mention my children (certainly have no photos of them on my desk nor discuss them at work) and never let childcare problems interfere with my performance. This could only work for so long.

My husband had a well paid job at a City law firm, but someone has to be there for the children and no matter how much you spend on childcare and cleaning you can't pay someone to actually care about your children, or whether your house is properly cleaned, or whether the children do their homework properly, or take the right things to school in their bags each day. So something had to give, and in this sexist society it was me. My career was already running behind his and women are still expected to take the lead in looking after their children: to hell with their dreams, ambitions, studies and academic achievements. I no longer work, and am at home with the children all day. It is a waste of my qualifications and intelligence. It is not fulfilling my ambitions as a person. I suppose the moral of this story is to think very carefully before you have children. It could ruin your career.


(Published by The Guardian - April 29, 2011)

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