fivehundred magazine > The Bar > From Bar to baby, and back again: Balancing practice with parenthood

From Bar to baby, and back again: Balancing practice with parenthood

Littleton Chambers’ Charlene Ashiru opens up about the challenges of taking a break from practice for parental leave, and provides practical advice on how to prepare yourself both practically and psychologically

Parenting and practice are not mutually exclusive. The thought may seem daunting at first, not least because you may have spent a number of years building your practice and professional network only to go and take an extended period of leave; but the prospect should be seen by you and all of those around you as an opportunity, not an obstacle. Since having a daughter, I am now more ambitious than ever. I want to prove to her that women can have it all and they do not need to forgo one area of life in order to excel in another. I want to pave the way for her own future success.

So, how do you prepare yourself both practically and psychologically for an extended period of leave followed by a return to practice?

Preparing for parental leave

Parental leave should be seen as an opportunity to recalibrate – embrace it. Take the time to reach out to your professional contacts, share your news, and prepare for the year ahead. Let them know how long you are going to be away and when they can expect your return. That allows them and you to manage ongoing cases whilst you are away. Clear your shelves of old papers to create headspace to focus on the new life that awaits.

Be clear as to what you want to achieve from your parental leave. Do you want to keep your hand in the pot at work, or do you want a complete break? For me, it was very important to be completely detached from work so that I could focus on family life. The temptation to help out a loyal solicitor would be compelling, and I knew how quickly a couple of hours could spiral into two days or two weeks of work. So, I suspended my practising certificate for the duration of my parental leave. The process was simple – all I needed to do was complete the Unregistered Barrister Notification Form and email it to the Bar Council – but this step was important for my mental wellbeing. It meant that my mind was free to focus on the parenting unknowns that lay ahead. Lo and behold, this proved to be a good decision. The day before I was due to give birth, I received a request to review a letter before action. Thankfully, I was able (and, indeed, obliged) to decline the instruction. Within a few hours of receiving that call I went into labour. Being honest with myself, and honest with my solicitor, meant that neither of us were disappointed.

Preparing for a return to work

It is easy to spend the final weeks of parental leave fretting about your return to work. Don’t. The reality is that you cannot prepare the practicalities until you actually return and get a feel for daily life. What you can do is put in place a childcare arrangement that you are happy with, make sure you have a back-up plan in the event of illness, and start letting your professional contacts know when you will be back. Before I went on maternity leave one of my colleagues told me to let him know when I was ready to return. I did just that. Within two weeks of my return he brought me in as a junior on a multimillion-dollar international arbitration at the London Court of International Arbitration (LCIA). That endorsement came at a critical time for me and was a real confidence boost.

Peer support from my friends, colleagues, and fellow parents has also been invaluable. Surrounding yourself with positive people to help and guide you is vital to your wellbeing. My clerks have also been very supportive. Regular contact has meant that we can manage my diary so as to ensure that I am not working too many evenings or weekends. They have appreciated the need not to overload me, but have been ready with opportunities when my schedule permits. They encouraged me to build ‘buffer’ days into my diary to make sure I have free days for family time or ‘me’ time, which they recognise as important.

The key thing is not to take on too much, especially in the early weeks, when you may need to contend with nursery ‘freshers’ flu’. And, again, be honest and open with your clients to help manage expectations; people are very understanding when you are upfront with them about your childcare commitments.

Abandoning ‘mum guilt’

Having spent every waking (and non-waking) hour with your child during parental leave, you will inevitably miss them when you return to work. However, ‘mum guilt’ is a social construct that is best left behind; you should not feel guilty about wanting a successful career. You quickly snap back into your ‘comfort zone’ at work and start to enjoy the independence and intellectual stimulation again. The reality is that when you are working you are too focused to feel guilty about anything. And, in turn, the productive time at work allows for the quality time at home. Don’t be too hard on yourself, don’t expect too much from yourself, and take each day as it comes. And remember: the small pieces build the big picture and it all fits together in the end.

Supporting barristers on parental leave

Liz Dux, chambers director at Littleton, considers what sets can do to ease the pressure of parenthood on their members

Littleton Chambers embraces parenthood as part of the ‘Littleton Family’. Facing an extended period of leave away from one’s client base and with no income can be very daunting for any self-employed barrister. Both financial support and non-financial support are, therefore, crucial at this important time. There are definite steps that chambers can take as an organisation to help reduce the pressure.

At Littleton, the level of support given by fellow members and staff has been very encouraging. In terms of financial support, our parental leave provisions regarding rent and chambers’ expenses, go a significant way to reduce the financial burden.

Equally, there is a structure in place with respect to non-financial support. Clerks arrange for a pre-leave meeting to be held to ensure contacts are maintained during a period of parental leave. Contact during parental leave is encouraged but only to the extent requested by the member; some want to keep their hands in, whilst others want a total break and to focus on that precious first year of parenthood. Chambers is respectful of the member’s wishes in this respect.

Immediately prior to return to practice, another detailed meeting takes place to discuss practice development and diary planning upon the member’s return to work.

Our clerks are very receptive to ensuring that anyone returning from parental leave is working as much or as little as they prefer. Communication and openness between the member and their clerking team is encouraged so that the clerks can be alive to childcare responsibilities when managing the member’s diary and can work in liaison with the member to ensure that the right work-life balance is achieved.

What pleases me most is the level of openness that exists within chambers to ensure that childcare responsibilities are discussed in a collegiate atmosphere. Working parent WhatsApp groups, informal lunches, congratulatory gifts, and welcome back drinks are all very positive steps to help the barrister feel supported at this precious time.