The job, the team and the clients may all be the same, but most female lawyers who I talk to on their return to work tell me that it’s the new challenges they face which can make it harder than they anticipated to feel like the balance between work, family and career is right.
Challenge 1: Less time, more work
A first common challenge comes from the obvious restrictions that childcare places on working parents. It’s not just that there is less time available, there is less elasticity around how long you can stay in the office to finish a piece of work.
This can leave lawyers feeling like their high professional standards are being compromised to fit in family commitments.
If this new world of work and family is to work then it’s critical to find a way around this from the outset which is sustainable in the short and long term for you and your employer.
Manage expectations with colleagues, partners and clients that you will be managing your time in a different way to before. You can start to do this before you return.
You need to be prepared to push back on clients and colleagues about what is possible within specific timeframes.
This requires you to be clear about what is non-negotiable in terms of deadlines and equally for you to suggest ways of working around the constraints you have – for example if a client asks to speak at a time during the evening that clashes with your child’s bath/bedtime routine suggest an alternative time and do not apologise for doing so.
Challenge 2: A different deal with your partner
The hardest adjustment for many lawyers – mothers and fathers – when they have a family, is a sense of lost autonomy where they can no longer run each working day as it suits them in the same way they did pre-parenthood.
It is particularly tough in a career where client deadlines can be unpredictable and sometimes require the ability to work occasional longer days or irregular hours.
To make your role as parent and lawyer work for you, you have to talk to your spousal partner about a shared approach to managing both your working and parenting responsibilities before you return.
It may be, like some lawyers I know, that you both chose to work four days a week so your child can be cared for at home at least two days a week. Equally, you may come to an arrangement where you take it in turns to put in early or late shifts at work when required or accommodate working at home in the evening to get the job done.
As it is the returning parent who will be working to re-establish themselves in the workplace in the months following their return, it can be helpful to agree that if the baby falls sick in the first couple of months the returning parent will remain at work while their spouse cares for the child.
Challenge 3: Confronting ‘invisible bump syndrome’
Even where working mothers are clearly committed to their roles post maternity, it’s not unusual for women to suffer from ‘invisible bump syndrome’ where people assume that if you have returned after your first child, you will be off again soon to have another. Equally, colleagues may make erroneous assumptions that if you work part-time, your commitment to your career is diminished.
In both instances this can potentially result in returners being given work that is not sufficiently challenging to support career advancement.
It is important from the outset not to shy away from conversations about your career aspirations.
You should discuss the need for your caseload to support your aspirations with the Partner/s you work most closely with. Start to have these conversations while you are on maternity leave.
Talk about how you wish to work with your former clients who may have been handed over to colleagues during your absence, to clarify how you will take back your responsibilities.
Challenge 4: Be honest where you need help
While on leave the law within your field of expertise may be subject to updates or changes. Some women worry about getting back up to speed on their return or feel they will be judged on any deficiencies.
Honesty is the best policy. There is a short period of time on return when others will accept that you are getting up to speed. Don’t be afraid during this period to admit the gaps in your knowledge and ask for help to complete them. Support will be available through the guidance of PSLs, not to mention the advice from a buddy or help from a mentor who can share their experience of returning to work.
Challenge 5: Avoid putting unnecessary pressure on yourself
Sometimes the biggest enemy of a successful return to work can be the unnecessary pressure women place on themselves.
The reality of successfully juggling career and family, is that it will take time to get to a place where you feel you are doing as well you want to in each of these areas – unless you are in a very lucky minority.
From a career perspective you can accelerate this process by doing two things.
The first is to recognise your strengths and request more work that plays to them. Success in your work will help re-establish you quickly in the eyes of your peers and your clients as well as cementing your self-confidence.
The second is to accept that you will make mistakes and not be afraid of doing things out of your comfort zone. The more you do, the more you will learn, particularly if you can put aside any perfectionist tendencies and understand that the most successful people are the ones who take risks and learn from mistakes.
You can also help by getting some perspective on how you are doing. Build yourself a ‘board of advisors’ who you can talk to about your progress, who understand you and counter your own views of how you should be doing with some objectivity.
If there is one thing that each of these obstacles has in common it is that being clear about what you want and enlisting the support of the right people is critical to a successful return to work after maternity leave.
Emma Spitz is a career coach at the Executive Coaching Consultancy. She has over twelve years experience advising City law firms and coaching female lawyers on their career development.