Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"The stress of being a female lawyer"

Taken from The Times July 30, 2009

Link: http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/article6732234.ece

The stress of being a female lawyer
As a verdict of suicide is recorded on a top woman City lawyer, a female in the profession reveals the intense burdens

Vanessa Lloyd Platt

Like others within the legal profession I was very sad to have read the tragic story of Catherine Bailey, a partner at a leading City law firm about whom an inquest recorded a verdict of suicide. Having practised as a divorce lawyer for 30 years I have seen many changes within the legal profession, with increasing pressure put on women, and I have suffered from it at times throughout my career — much more than my friends in other professions.

Like Bailey I too have children (now aged 29 and 27) and was faced, when they were younger, with a balancing act that would have floored a man at the first hurdle.

It is little wonder to me that the levels of alcoholism and addiction among lawyers has climbed steadily over the past few years with helplines jammed with distressed lawyers, particularly women. While women in other professions may face similar difficulties, what is unique to the legal profession is the intense costs targets that involve long working hours and competitive strategies. We have all seen films that emphasise those pressures such as The Firm. These targets are not just the stuff of fiction but are a reality — particularly during the recession in which some of the biggest legal firms in the world have collapsed and senior management have been ousted. It is little wonder that the buzzword around legal offices is “fear”.

The first overwhelming burden that faces a young legal mother is the question of when she goes back to work again and whether she will be downgraded according to the time she takes off. In a still predominantly men-orientated world, male lawyers seem to resent the time that women have off for maternity leave, many complaining of what they perceive as holding the fort after a woman’s decision to become pregnant. Many women complain that on their return to the legal profession, they are expected to work at twice the pace to make up for the time off, which puts inordinate pressure on them when they are trying to develop a sensible working pattern and balance.

A high-flier no one envied
Some complain that they are deliberately booked in to do long conferences with counsel when they do return, which begin late in the day, just to test how uncomfortable this can make them. So at a time when they are adjusting to balancing coming home to see the baby after a long day of absence, and take over from the au pair, nanny or family member, they are forced to work late and miss seeing their child before bedtime.

This is when the pattern of guilt sets in. Like nearly every legal mother I know, I spent my children’s entire childhood wrapped in remorse that I was neglecting their needs. My son still brings up the day I arrived too late to hear his tuba debut at the school concert because of a needy client who would not get off the telephone.

The feeling of sinking desperation on days such as these is all encompassing. What stopped me from quitting? I had worked too hard to get there. Women lawyers in particular have complained over the years that they have had to work far harder within the legal profession than their male counterparts to make their mark. Just at the point of success, they have to choose between career and family. It takes you a certain number of years to build up to success, which always coincides with child-bearing years.

The other reason for not quitting is that part of being a good lawyer is being a Type A personality, which involves competitiveness and obstinancy and, in turn, keeps you in a profession that can drive you insane. And we are perfectionists too. So we impose our own pressures — to be the best lawyer, best mother, best housekeeper, best wife, best friend and best colleague. It is precisely this quality that propels female lawyers up the ladder of success but pushes them off when they try to overachieve in every other part of their lives. Add postnatal depression to the mix and it can prove fatal.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that many colleagues have high-flying partners, who can then become childlike and aggressive when competing for their spouse’s affection. One friend recalls that when she had their first child and went back to work, her husband, a well-paid accountant, started behaving like a teenager. Every night, just at the moment she was about to breastfeed, he demanded dinner, or that she find some papers she had tidied away. “I feel that I have lost a husband and gained another infant,” she cried one night.

Added to that can be the demand by male partners that their own career needs must be met, such as a pressure to cook dinner or entertain. The stories of what women lawyers do to multitask are legion: I will never forget witnessing a colleague, the head of a matrimonial department, as she pushed the pram with her foot while dictating answers to a multimillion-pound questionnaire because her nanny had left without warning. Or a good friend, who was a partner in a mergers and acquisitions firm, who told me that she had spent the day dabbing calamine lotion on her three children’s chicken pox while taking instructions from her biggest client in Hong Kong. I have lost count of the amount of women lawyers I know who breastfed while dictating substantial legal documents.

Many women lawyers laugh in the Robing Room about how they deal with their husbands’ getting frisky after they have been on the go for some 18 hours. One recently told me that just as she forced herself to “get in the mood”, she received a BlackBerry message from her boss reminding her to complete the detailed document required for the 8am meeting the next day. “It sort of killed the moment,” she said.

During the recession, the pressures on female lawyers have been made even greater because of the increase in many of their husbands or partners being made redundant. Many friends and colleagues have become the sole breadwinner, and still have to try to encourage and commiserate with their partner. Furthermore, many of their partners have become depressed and have done nothing around the home to help, which has built resentment and rows have ensued. Accordingly, the mother who might have been considering working part-time to be with her new family, cannot now as she has to work to provide money for the family.

For the older woman lawyer, there is a fear in this climate that she will be “put out to graze” and made redundant. So the pressures on her when her husband is talking about his retirement are all the greater. For divorce lawyers and those who specialise in a high level of intense time limits, the feelings of panic and pressure are enormous. Divorce lawyers also have to take on board huge levels of emotional distress from their clients and if they do not find a suitable outlet in sport or hobbies, then the pressure can become too much.

So is there a solution? Yes there is. It took me a long while to understand the importance of finding “me” time, but without it there is no quality of life and everyone suffers. I have learnt to say no, to take time out and to prioritise my family. It’s a lesson that came not a moment too soon — and many learn too late.

© Vanessa Lloyd Platt 2009

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