Our thanks to Mike P for this piece in yesterday’s Telegraph. He writes:
This is why there are fewer women at the top – from the mouth of a woman…..
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I started working for a law firm at 23, but my job eventually took over my life, which became even more difficult after my son was born
I grew up in a working class Hertfordshire family and was the first to attend university. I didn’t know what I wanted to do after graduating, but when one of my friends signed up for law school, it seemed as sensible an idea as any.
I was thrilled to win a training contract at a prestigious Magic Circle firm in the City, and started in 2000, when I was 23. It soon started to take over my life. This was the era of the Blackberry phone: I was sending emails 24/7. By the time I was 30, I was working almost 3,000 billable hours a year; sleeping two to three hours a night; and missing social events, including the weddings of loved ones.
Eventually I left, joining the small London office of an international firm. In 2011, at the age of 34, I was made a partner – just as I discovered I was pregnant. It was a male-dominated workplace, so I was the first partner to need maternity leave. They actually had to write the policy for me.
The workload was relentless, with deal after deal after deal. Even at eight months pregnant I had to stay at the office all night and into the following day to get one signed.
I returned to work when my son was just a few months old, juggling the long work hours with caring for a baby. For three months, I worked until 3am almost every night on a billion-dollar transaction. My husband is an anaesthetist, so it was crucial he had some rest. We devised a rota for getting up at night with our son. When I got home in the early hours, he’d have to hand the baby over to me, so he could grab some sleep himself.
Looking back, I don’t know how we got through it. What I do know is that I found myself wishing away the baby phase and longing for the time when my child would sleep through the night.
But when he was two, we had our second son. Three months later, I was asked to fly to the US for three nights on a business development trip. I didn’t feel I could say no.
Why didn’t I simply leave, if I was finding the pressure so unbearable? It wasn’t as if I was hooked on the luxury lifestyle. Yes, I was earning six figures, and we had a comfortable home and nice holidays – but I’ve never been one to splash the cash. I suppose it was to do with not coming from a wealthy background. I felt my wealth might be provisional.
I also couldn’t see a way out. My generation of lawyers was brainwashed into thinking partnership in a big law firm was the only way to be successful. Stubbornness kicked in and I kept on going, even if the job was slowly destroying me. I was no less addicted to my Blackberry – much to my husband’s exasperation. I barely saw my children, other than briefly before I dashed to work. A nanny came early and got them ready for nursery or school. By the time I got home at night, they were often in bed.
And then the pandemic came along. Like so many mothers, I suddenly found myself trying to meet the demands of a busy job while home-schooling my children. Our nanny was shielding, my husband was working long, difficult hours in an intensive care unit, and all the childcare and housework was left to me. I had conversations with male partners who reeled off everything their wives were having to do to run the household and got radio silence when I asked them to imagine doing the day job on top of all that. My firm offered online learning resources and unpaid leave but as our family’s main breadwinner it didn’t seem feasible.
Eventually, I cracked. I received an innocent email asking if I could take over someone else’s work as well as my own. It sent me into meltdown and I found myself crying and shaking in front of my computer. I realised I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
I knew I did not want to carry on. And so I made what now feels like the best decision ever: after 21 years of striving and only just surviving, I ditched my City career.
Since then I have launched my own legal education and advisory business, rebranding myself as The Legal Strategist and offering consultation on corporate matters. I’m also building an online programme that gives people the pragmatic legal advice they need to set up and run their own business. The aim is to use my skills to help other people feel confident enough to do something they really want to.
The change to my life has been overwhelmingly positive. I’m finally in control of my time, and giddy with excitement at being off the treadmill. Just as importantly, I can do the school run every day; we eat dinner together most evenings and I’m spending the summer with my children – the first time I’ve been able to do that since my maternity leave.
People call millennials “snowflakes” for not wanting to spend all their hours working. But after my experiences, I think those who reject a long-hours corporate culture are the ones who really have their heads screwed on.
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