Esther Venning

I remember that day in March 2020 very clearly. The day Boris Johnson announced we should all work from home with immediate effect. I was sitting with my colleagues in our office in Leeds and I think we all realised then that something strange and quite scary was unfolding outside although we couldn’t really articulate it.

Little did I realise that the next 10 months would not only turn the world upside down but would coincide with one of the most personally challenging yet rewarding periods of my career: the juggling of work and home schooling, promotion to partner, overseeing an office move, becoming head of office in Leeds and keeping the team together as we each worked to adapt our individual circumstances to this new normal.

The move to working from home was pretty straightforward, as we already worked flexibly at Hill Dickinson. We had all the tech we needed. The weather was unseasonably warm. All in all it was a bit of a novelty.

That all came crashing down with the announcement that schools would close for the foreseeable. It was serious, and frightening. The thought of having my two children, aged six and nine, at home all day while my husband and I also worked was completely mindboggling. How on earth would that work? How could we juggle home schooling, new routines, lack of contact with their friends, while still meeting our work demands? Add to that worries about parents and close family, it was a lot to take in. Like everyone else, we got on with it as best we could.

And so it began – my husband and I split our days in half and shared the “teaching” 50:50. We both work four days a week and share childcare and I am so thankful for that (I recognise this is not the norm for most working mothers). My clients and team were amazingly supportive. Workwise, things started to crank up in a big way; my main clients are NHS organisations and they were under pressure like never before. If we were frightened by what was happening, I couldn’t imagine how my clients felt. I worked on setting up two Nightingale hospitals, as well as many other urgent Covid-related projects. To be honest, it was exhausting, and I definitely had a few ‘meltdown’ moments during that period. What really helped was having a strong sense of purpose in what I was doing, contributing to the Covid-19 effort in a small yet significant way.

One of the biggest work challenges was (and still is) keeping all of our team going in these difficult times, particularly given my own challenges at home. Everyone has their own pandemic ‘story’ – as a friend said: “We are not all in the same boat, just in the same storm”. So I started ‘virtual cuppas’ in lockdown #1, which are still going strong, giving everyone a chance to recreate those random chats we miss from being in the office. We’ve done regular virtual socials, started a book club and undertaken a number of charity challenges. Most importantly I speak to everyone in the team regularly to make sure we’re all okay. But it’s definitely been tough.

As if that wasn’t enough, my own career was at a pivotal point in 2020. I was up for promotion to partnership and head of the Leeds office, a process that had started before lockdown #1. The firm was still keen for me to go for it, but the timing suddenly felt all wrong. How could I focus on that with my children at home and everything else that was going on?

Luckily, I’d had some amazing leadership coaching along the way. My coach, Claire, helped me realise that I could still do this: I had a clear vision of what I wanted to achieve and how I wanted to lead and, despite everything, I needed to step up and go for it.

I was promoted to partner in September 2020 and was also appointed head of Hill Dickinson’s Leeds office, bringing fresh challenges as we moved to new office premises. My kids were happily back at school and it was great to be back in the office, even just one day a week. Seeing my teammates face to face for that short period was so refreshing and, in an absolute team highlight, we completed the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge in that window of vague normality in September 2020, raising much-needed funds for Martin House Hospice.

This slither of near normality was short-lived with the November lockdown meaning working from home again without the warmth of spring/summer, and at the time of writing, we are still in that position.

So it’s clearly not over yet, but I have hope for the future. There will be plenty of new challenges to come, and we absolutely have to look after each other, even if we’ve demonstrated amazing resilience so far. The pandemic has created opportunities in other ways, and, in the legal sector, it has accelerated long overdue cultural change and challenged long-held prejudices and unhelpful perceptions. Reflecting on this tough period, most of all the pandemic has confirmed for me that being authentic and honest about our struggles and vulnerability helps bring out the best in me and in my team. And that is the way I want to lead.

Esther Venning is a healthcare partner at Hill Dickinson