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How will you come back to work after children?

HFW’s Stephanie Lambert in Sydney and Jo Garland in Perth explain why partnership and parenthood should not be mutually exclusive

The fact that two women made partner of a large international firm when they had young children (while on maternity leave in fact) shouldn’t be news. But it is. If two men made partner while having young children it wouldn’t be news worthy and it happens all time.

Stephanie Lambert and Jo Garland at HFW Australia share what it took for them to make partner while having young children and being on maternity leave, and how firms can be more encouraging of parental leave and overcoming presentism, so that making partner as a woman with young children is no longer news but the norm.

As lawyers there’s a general expectation that you should aspire to the lofty heights of partnership from the time that you first enter law. While it might be the case that such aspirations do, in fact, exist, there are slim pickings when it comes to identifying female partners that exemplify such aspirations.

According to the Law Society of NSW’s annual ‘National Profile of the Profession’, published July 2019, there are now more female than male lawyers across Australia and the number of women practising law in Australia has increased by 49% since 2011, compared to only 16% growth for men. However, the Australian Financial Review’s 2019 ‘Law Partnership Survey’found that only 27% of partners in large and medium-sized firms are women. Looking at equity partnership, the same survey finds that figure further decreases to 21.4% at Australia’s 44 leading law firms.

Despite these low figures we both aspired to make partner, and succeeded, at what is a very challenging time while juggling maternity leave, babies, and work. We came to confirm our aspirations to make partner in different ways. For me (Jo) it was deciding that partnership was something I really wanted and that, despite the sacrifices I’d have to make, in the long run, it was the right decision for my family (husband Hamish, 4-year-old Willa, and 4-month-old Ruby).

“The bias materialises in different ways, such as the financial modelling for a firm where prioritising billable hours or quantitative measures can impact on progress to partnership”

For me (Stephanie), having established my career progressively, it was the determination that partnership was the next step in a natural progression for me (despite my being pregnant at the time of submitting my partnership application and despite having been asked by a number of somewhat perplexed individuals, ‘how will you come back to work after having a child?’).

Although the profession has come a long way in addressing this type of bias, and recognising that having a family is not prohibitive to partnership or other senior positions within a law firm, these type of questions highlight that such bias still exists. The bias also materialises in different ways, such as the financial modelling for a firm where prioritising billable hours or quantitative measures can impact on progress to partnership where a desire to start a family, or family commitments, intervene.

While there are myriad factors which allow these stereotypes to continue, ultimately it comes down to the culture of the firm and whether it can overcome the traditional expectations of presenteeism and genuinely encourage parental leave (for both men and women), flexible working arrangements, and variables in financial modelling.

The practice of law is really a lifestyle – you need to be flexible with your personal and professional life and take the good with the bad – and this needs to be reflected in the greater culture of the firm. For those looking to make partner and have a family at the same time, there’s a lot that you can do to set yourself up and establish your position in the firm beforehand.

For example, having a strong internal profile is something that can really advantage you as you’ll find that people outside of your immediate group will be more inclined to support your career progression to partnership when they know who you are and what you do rather than just a name on the page (which can often happen in big firms). Staying in touch with the firm and your clients while on parental leave also helps; for example, attending firm functions and team meetings, or having a coffee catch up with a client. These are things we both did. It allows you to stay connected with the firm while still maintaining the time you need with your new family.

It also helps greatly to have a life partner that is prepared to take an equal role in parenting and child care. For me (Jo), it would have been far more difficult to return to work (particularly with a 4-month-old baby) if my husband hadn’t taken some time out of work to be the primary caregiver. For me (Stephanie), it was a combination of my husband taking time out from his work and the support of (very valued) hired help. You also have to learn to let go on the home front and accept that things can’t always be perfect. If your kids are served pasta three weeknights in a row, or consecutively eating at your husband’s shwarma shop, you accept it and make up for it on the weekend!

Society needs to become more accepting and promote equal rights for men and women to take time out of work and spend time with their children. When men and women across the board are taking parental leave, and taking time out for child-related commitments, then it becomes less of a gender issue and some of the bias around women’s commitment to work/partnership post children may fade away over time.

To wrap up, having a young family while being a partner is not easy. It’s not easy regardless of gender, although women tend to suffer the career setbacks as the primary caregiver. Flexible work for all genders, a change in the billable hours value system and accepting that you have to take the good with the bad in a partner role (and letting your kids eat pasta three days in a row) all take us one step closer to proper gender equality at partner level.

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