Family Law: a family-unfriendly sector?

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November 16, 2010

 

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 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 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 rollercoaster 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 should be the love of its parents’ lives. 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 born I couldn’t have the luxury of several months’ paid leave. 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 kept in touch with the office by phone. I was lucky to have a brilliant sister, who would look after Ben in a crisis. I also depended upon doting staff, who took the baby for walks 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 had to rethink a lot, but in fact the firm grew. I stopped doing legal aid. I stopped attending court as an advocate, because it was too time-consuming. I instructed counsel more frequently. I raised my charge-out rate. Instructions increased and I took on more staff. Somehow it all worked, but the daily struggle convinced me that new parents should stay at home – not rush back to work. Only now can I laugh about the time when a particularly demanding client arrived early – to find me feeding and changing the baby.

 

Too far?

 

So I am pleased that much has changed, with improved maternity rights and a shift in attitudes towards working mothers. But nowadays, with my own experiences behind me, a much bigger firm to run and far more clients to answer to, I wonder if the pendulum hasn’t swung too far the other way.

The European Parliament intends to extend maternity leave to 20 weeks on full pay. Additional paternity leave regulations give fathers the right to ‘split’ leave with mothers and take up to six months off. The aim is to give families ‘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.