This is a slightly expanded version of my latest Family Business column in Solicitors Journal.
Even a working mum feels the pang of fear when an employee starts a family, confesses Marilyn Stowe
It begins with a glowing, beaming, expectant mum breaking the news to me and our colleagues. We are genuinely delighted and we rush to congratulate her. I think back to when my son Ben was a small baby and I juggled motherhood with the demands of a growing practice.
The legal sector has a reputation for being “family-unfriendly”, but I like to think that family law is a little different. Perhaps this is because we are accustomed to working within and around families’ lives. We urge our clients to put children’s needs first and the trials, rigours and privileges of parenthood loom large in our day-to-day work.
As our firm’s senior partner, however, I must make a confession. When the expectant mum is back at her desk and the initial buzz and congratulations have subsided, my thoughts turn elsewhere. What about the lawyer’s clients, caught up in the emotional roller coaster of divorce? However well the change is handled, will they be furious at the loss of the appointed representative in whom they have placed so much time and confidence?
What about the firm? Among our current fee earners, there simply isn’t the slack to absorb an entire caseload. How many good fee earners are on the market? What happens when our mum decides to come back? As for locums: there are many excellent ones, but they have no need of loyalty to the firm. What divorcing client wants to put trust in a temporary employee?
A tricky balance
A child is without doubt the greatest blessing of any couple. A child is or should be the love of their parents’ lives. As a family lawyer, I maintain that parenting arrangements should be in place entirely for the child’s benefit. As an employer however, I am conscious of the turmoil I went through balancing the needs of my own fledgling practice and of my tiny baby.
To my chagrin, when my son was a baby I couldn’t have the luxury of several months’ paid leave. Had I done that, my practice would have collapsed. Instead, after a bad experience with a nanny, I brought him into work with me – along with a travel cot and a carload of paraphernalia – until he could go to a nursery. Most days we left at lunchtime and I would keep in touch with the office by phone. I was lucky to have a brilliant sister, a stay-at-home mother of two, who would look after Ben in a crisis. I also depended upon doting staff, who were thrilled to take the baby for a walk while I worked. Somehow we both survived and as they say, the proof is in the pudding: Ben is following his parents into the law.
With all the effort I put into parenting and my work, I was forced to rethink a lot, but in fact the firm grew. I stopped doing Legal Aid work. I stopped going to court as an advocate, because it was too time consuming. I instructed counsel more. I started to look at PR as an option for a family lawyer. I increased my own charge out rate. Clients instructed me in greater numbers and I took on more staff. Somehow it all worked. It was a constant, daily struggle but it was one that I was happy to undertake. It is only now that I can laugh about the time when a particularly demanding client arrived early – to find me feeding and changing the baby.
So, I am pleased that much has changed since then, with the introduction of improved maternity rights and – just as importantly – a significant shift in attitudes towards working mothers. But nowadays, with my employer’s hat, my own experiences behind me, a much bigger firm to run and far more clients to answer to, I just wonder whether the pendulum hasn’t swung too far in the other direction.
Last month the European Parliament passed proposals to extend maternity leave to 20 weeks on full pay. From April, additional paternity leave regulations will give fathers the right to “split” time off with mothers and take up to six months’ leave. The aim is to give families “more choice and flexibility.” However, if solicitors can absent themselves from small and mid-sized firms for increasingly lengthy periods of time, in increasing numbers, I fear that firms and clients may lose out.