29 March 2004
The firm is having trouble with mothers-in-law.
They have managed, so far, to bully all the solicitors returning from maternity leave and wanting to work part-time into moving sideways and doing something different – you know, something less challenging, less client-facing, less well paid.
Now they’re up against it. Catherine from corporate, who has two gorgeous twins at the six-month mark, which is when you realise you want to see something beyond the play café and the checkout line at Sainsbury’s, wants exactly her old job back – just a bit less of it, thank you very much. Just one day less.
They don’t have to give it to her, of course, but Catherine has some very useful clients, and they’re terrified she’ll walk. She’s also extremely determined, and they fear she’ll find some way of forcing their hand. If she wins, however, she’ll set a precedent. “Good grief,” said the Lawyer, ringing me from a Mercedes showroom, where he was browsing during a slow afternoon. “It’s not as if law is a part-time calling.”
I saw Catherine in the checkout queue last week, and she told me they’d offered her riches beyond imagination, including an office of her own and a car-parking space, so long as she doesn’t do the big contracts any more.
“It’s so hard,” she said, sadly, joggling one twin up and down while the other screamed in the trolley. “It’s like they’re punishing me. It’s not as if I’ll be swanning around the rest of the time.” I agreed, telling her about an old colleague of the Lawyer’s who was caught up in one of those all-night deal closures, and found herself breast-feeding at three in the morning before triumphantly wrapping the whole thing up in time for a cooked breakfast. Far from being moved or impressed, the client binned the firm soon after: it was all a bit too real for it.
Whether she wins or not, she’s got two jobs now: looking after clients and looking after children. They’re quite similar: repetitive, boring and time-consuming, and most of your time is spent doing low-grade support stuff – in my case, washing, ironing, cooking, dropping off and picking up and lots of consoling. The moments of pure joy at the charm of your children, and your own luck in bringing them into the world, are there, but they’re fleeting and must be grasped in between nose-wiping and appeals to turn the television off. For the Lawyer, who mostly spends his time in meetings twiddling paperclips and who has even less time to spend on the low-grade support, the moments of pure joy at anyone’s charm are very rare indeed.
“But you know, I’ll be doing five days’ work in four; that’s the way it always goes,” continued Catherine. “Really, they should be grateful to me. I’ll be costing them a lot less. And I know I’ll never make partner now. So that’s one problem less for them as well.”
I felt so sad as I packed away the shopping and went on the school run. I gave up the fight years ago, faced with the Lawyer’s exponential pay increases and the knowledge that any job I
did would be so minor, financially, compared with his, and so lacking in status when set next to the revered world of the law, that it seemed easier to turn the children into a full-time job and save myself the hassle. But what if I’d had the glittering prizes within reach? Could I bear to have seen them taken away? I hope that Catherine wins: she deserves to.