By Sunyana Sharma, Barrister, 3 Paper Buildings
As I start to write this article, my daughter sits behind me in her high chair throwing her crayons on the floor. This is the only way I can stop her thumping on my laptop or demanding that she sit in my lap whilst I try and write another email. It’s midday and so far on one of my working days, I have written three emails, put the washing on the line put in another wash and spoken to my clerk. I am yet to draft the note from last week, respond to three urgent emails that need my immediate yet focussed attention (tricky with a toddler in tow) and update my website which has been on my list for since I returned to Chambers three months ago. Let’s be frank…there really is no easy way to parent and be a barrister but somehow for years many barristers, largely women have managed busy practices with parenthood. The good news is that times have definitely changed. As I have watched the Bar develop over the years, I have noticed that many women are no longer hemorrhaging the Bar once they go off on maternity leave. Many are choosing to come back to work and trialling a phased return to work. That’s not always easy of course especially if you’re a Court advocate. It can be quite tricky to tell a Judge not to list a case on Thursday because I only work Mondays to Wednesdays or that you can’t undertake a 3 day trial case which starts on Wednesday as it does not fit in with your working day.
Life as a working mum or dad is far from straightforward. There are a lot of competing issues to manage: making enough money to live, childcare, work life balance, doing your job well when sleep deprived and feeling like you are not progressing. How do you get your children to school or childcare so that you can make it to Court for 9am to have a conference with your client? How do you make sure you can be back for pick up or for the afternoon clubs of football or dance or swimming. All of this can be quite a juggling act. So what can you do?
After returning to the Bar following child number 2 and speaking to a number of mums and dads who did come back, here are some of my top tips:
- Don’t panic. No one will forget you. Life at the Bar is a long game. So what if you can’t do that high profile 3 week trial in Nottingham because you’ll be away from the children. There will always be another big case. Within 6 months to a year, people will not even realise that you were away. It may take a bit of time to get the ball rolling but before you know it, you’ll be turning work away;
- Don’t rush back to work unless of course you have to. Your children are only young once and the early years are the best and most precious years of their lives. Many female barristers have returned to work after 5, 10 or even 15 years away from practice to raise their families. In fact one member of my chambers took 9 years away from the Bar to raise her children and she is now a successful Silk (and more importantly a successful mother – her children are well rounded, super smart and very well mannered). So anything is possible;
- Organise a Practice Development Meeting with your clerks before you go off on leave, just before you return and a few months after returning. Let them know what you expect when you leave, i.e. would you like regular updates, still be involved in meetings or do you want to completely switch off. As for when you return, how many days would you like to work, what Courts are you willing to travel to, what do you need to earn? Once you have worked a few months, you can then discuss what is working well and what isn’t and reduce and/or increase your workload. There is an active obligation for clerks to liaise with returning barristers in the weeks/months before they return to work to ensure that there is work for the returning barrister but to also enable the clerk to understand what adjustments need to be made to the barrister’s working pattern;
- Remember to check your maternity/paternity policy before and after you return to Chambers. This will help with paying rent and knowing what support is available for you whilst you’re away. Some chambers reduce the rental rate for barristers during maternity/paternity leave and for a year after they return. If no policy exists then why not create one. The Bar Council provides a very helpful guide on Maternity and Paternal Leave: https://www.barcouncilethics.co.uk/documents/matleave/;
- If you are going on parental leave, decide whether to keep your practising certificate or suspend it. This is purely a personal choice. If you continue it, you are required to complete your CPD. This will of course affect your insurance. So check with the Bar Mutual Fund whether you will receive any rebate on your insurance. You may wish to have additional limited cover whilst on parental leave. Be aware that the fee for the practising certificate varies considerably depending on whether you suspend your certificate or not. At present, to support barristers returning to work, a barrister who does not cancel their practising certificate could qualify for up to 2 years parental leave discount on your practising certificate. This means you will only have to pay Band 1 fees. In 2023 this was £100. However if you cancel your practising certificate, then you return to the full rate. For more details: https://www.barstandardsboard.org.uk/for-barristers/authorisation-to-practise.html#:~:text=To%20support%20barristers%20returning%20to,to%20maintain%20your%20Practising%20Certificate;
- Check whether you’re entitled to the Government’s maternity allowance. It may feel like a handout but if you’re self employed, you have already paid out for it with your national insurance contributions. When your aged debt starts to dry up, the 9 month allowance is an absolute godsend. You can also undertake ‘keeping in touch’ days during this period;
- Control your own diary. Allow yourself days to prep or even write articles! Once children start school, you realise that the working day is far shorter than when your kids were at a private nursery, the childminders or with family. Gone are the days of working from 6am until 10pm. You may only have between 9am until 3pm. But do make sure that you book out dates for the nativity play or sports day. No one needs to know why you’re unavailable. The additional adjustment that needs to be made when children start school is immense so be mindful that your working day is likely to change again. Despite this reduction in time, trust me you will become far more efficient. And do not be afraid to write notes into your diary. Some clerks don’t like this practice but they will soon become accustomed to it;
- When you have less time to work, it really helps to focus the mind on what areas you really want to practise in. Ditch those areas that no longer work for you and use this time as an opportunity to develop areas you are really interested in. (I was so grateful to finally drop personal injury.) If the market can tolerate it, consider up-ing your hourly rate. Childcare is expensive! Trust me you will need the money plus if you have children of schooling age, you will now be holidaying at peak times;
- Be aware that you may feel a drop in confidence when returning to work. It will feel like others have progressed and are now leading in areas that you once were (Trust me I know, I had no choice but to return a 12 week inquest as my hearing was listed 3 weeks after my baby was due). In a career spanning 30, 40 or even 50 years, a few years to have 1, 2 or 3 children is but small fry! Buddy up with another member of chambers who has been there and see how they have managed it and continue to manage it. There are so many ways to raise a family and run your practise and it is helpful to understand how others do it to see what works best for you. Some chambers have a mentoring programme to help those returning back to work after paternal leave, illness or even just to help members to progress. If yours doesn’t, this could be a great opportunity to set up such a programme;
- The Bar Nursery at Smithfield House is a central London childcare facility close to the Old Bailey which offers childcare between 0700 and 1900 5 days a week. For more details: https://www.innertemple.org.uk/membership-services-support/childcare-at-the-bar/. Not all barristers live in London so this facility will only be appropriate for a select few but there are a number of options available for childcare: school nurseries, private nurseries, childminders, family, friends, a nanny;
- When you are back in Court, don’t be afraid to ask a Judge if you can sit later or rise earlier if you have childcare duties. In a 5 day virtual trial, I asked a Tribunal Judge if we could sit at 9.15am rather than 9am so I could at least undertake the school drop off. The Judge was very accommodating to my request. Some Judges may not be as helpful but as the old adage goes: ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’. I recently heard a male barrister desperately needed someone to baby sit his jury whilst he attended a school event. The Judge was content with this course so long as another barrister was available. Within 2 hours of personally making the request to another chambers, someone was found to be available and willing to assist. So remember your colleagues understand and they will help you if they can;
- If private practice is not working or is proving difficult, consider working in house or on secondment for a law firm or regulator. The hours can be more consistent and regularised and your family know where you will be. It can also look great on the CV and allow you to develop your practice in other areas that you may be interested in. This course is worth exploring with your clerks and/or colleagues. A stint at National Grid for 14 months and at the Financial Conduct Authority for 11 months taught me how to work in industry, what areas of law I wanted to and did not want to practise in and the fact that I was not ready to leave the Bar. It also allowed me to go to the gym 3 times a week, work from home so I could be involved with my daughter, be back home by a certain time when I was travelling to the office and enabled me to know exactly how much money I would be taking home at the end of the month;
- Another option is to start to kickstart your judicial career. In my DDJ role, I can sit in courts that I want, i.e. only my local courts and do so when it is convenient for me. So if I have a gap in my diary I can choose to sit. This is a really great way of earning money and I very rarely have to prepare for a day in Court. I can also leave my papers there. I have met a number of parents who sit as part time judges exclusively as they find this easier to manage than practising at the Bar or in a solicitor’s firm;
- Most importantly have a strong network of people around you: partner, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbours. There has been many a time when my conference or hearing has overrun and my neighbour or in laws have picked up my children after school as I can no longer make it. We have all been there including Judges so many will empathise with your difficulties.
For me like most parents every bit of time is precious. Every minute, every hour counts. Make the most of it…
With thanks to coffee…I couldn’t get through the day without you!
An even bigger thank you to the incredible working parents (both male and female) who have helped me write this article. As Tina Fey once said: ‘I think every working mom probably feels the same thing: You go through big chunks of time where you’re just thinking, “this is impossible- oh, this is impossible” and then you just keep going and keep going, and you sort of do the impossible.’
3 Paper Buildings