SG: Hello everyone and welcome to this episode of Realm Talks To. This is being filmed as part of our Parenting in the Law campaign and today I’m really pleased to be speaking to Jen Smith. Jen is a partner in the employment team at Forbes and a mum of two. I feel like it’s quite fitting as well, just to mention that I’ll be filming this on two hours of sleep because my toddler had other ideas about staying in his bed last night. So already we’ve started on the parenthood topic. How are you doing today, Jen?
JS: I’m great thank you. Luckily, I was uninterrupted last night sleep-wise for the first night in a few nights. Normally I’m interrupted by my four-year-old. So I share your pain, but yes I did have a good seven hours last night which is great.
SG: Oh, brilliant. No, that’s good. I’m very pleased for you. So as part of the campaign that we’re doing at the moment, we recently carried out some research at Realm to learn more about the challenges and the opportunities that are facing parents working specifically in the legal profession. So, I thought it would just be helpful for our audience if I just gave you some of the headline stats that have come out of that.
Quite sadly, 59% of parents said that they felt less optimistic about their career since becoming a parent. In response to the question “How well do you feel your firm supports you as a working parent”, 70% actually said very or fairly well but there were still 13% of our respondents who said very poorly, that they don’t feel supported at all by their employer.
First of all Jen, do these stats surprise you in any way?
JS: I think they’re actually more positive than I anticipated maybe, but you know I am a cynical lawyer. But I mean the 70% is incredible, I think that’s phenomenal, but I do wonder if that would have been the same pre-pandemic, if you’d have asked pre-pandemic, pre-Teams, pre-Zoom, pre-hybrid working if people felt supported, I probably suspect that stat would have been a bit different. But no, I was quite surprised actually how positive they were.
SG: Yeah, I think you’re right. With the rise of flexibility and homeworking (although a lot of firms are starting to scale back a little bit on that now, which is having impacts in terms of retention), but also, you know, additional pressures on team members. I think you’re right. I think maybe it would have been maybe slightly more negative. The general sort of vibe I got from all of the results is that generally parents feel supported but it’s still really hard and, as we’ll come on to, the mental load and burnout are still very prevalent despite the fact that you know firms are perhaps doing things at least to try and help.
I’d like to focus first of all on your role as a working parent working in the legal profession if that’s okay.
SG: How did these stats sort of compare to your own experiences as a working parent? You know, in terms of the optimism, have you felt that your career prospects have changed at all since becoming a parent and more specifically what’s your experience been like at Forbes?
JS: I suppose to make clear, I’d achieved partner prior to having children so I was I was nicely referred to as geriatric mum – I was 37 when I had my first and 40 when I had my surprise little number two (a 40th birthday present that wasn’t on my list but came!) I was always clear, I always wanted to be a partner, that was an ambition and a goal of mine and I achieved that prior to having my children so I feel like I need to be fair and make that clear.
SG: Sure. You achieved partnership quite early in your career proportionately, didn’t you then?
JS: I suppose the point I want to make is that I want to recognise that I got that prior to the struggle of being a pregnant employee, of being a returning mum from mat leave and I think, would my career prospects have been impacted if I had children earlier on? Yes, I think they would have been probably. Do think I would have got the promotions as quickly as I had? No, if I’m being honest and reflecting, I don’t think I would have done. I think it would have taken me longer ultimately, if I had the children earlier on. So I say that wanting to recognise that I do think it is hard for women who are in the wrong firms for them, that sometimes to get the promotions, it can be harder and take longer if you’re at the wrong firm when you’re having children and you’re in that phase of your life.
In terms of how my career’s changed, I’m a lot more efficient now. I’m a lot more efficient. Procrastination happens a lot less. I have to eat the frog now. Don’t know if you’ve heard that phrase, but I have to eat the frog now. My friend of mine was asking me why, when I was talking to her about doing this interview, and I was talking about this and I was like, well nothing spurs you on. I’ll have a Gillian Keegan moment now, I’ll use some choice language, but nothing spurs you on to get shit done than the fear of being fined for picking your child up late when you’re already paying £1500 a month on childcare. I know when I get in my office or at my desk, wherever it is I’m working that day, I need to get my stuff done to be able to make sure that I’m out of that office to go and pick up my children. So I’ve definitely become more efficient. Because I can’t say, well, I can finish this later on in the working day because I know I’ve got to leave.
Being at Forbes is absolutely incredible. My experience of being a working parent at Forbes has just been incredible and I honestly can’t speak highly enough of the culture from that working parent experience. It encourages you to be your absolute authentic self and they really understand the challenges that come with being a working parent. I found out that I was pregnant when I was forty and I was also in my probation period, so I was very nervous about the pregnancy. It was a high-risk pregnancy. I don’t mind sharing that. And you know, naturally, I was quite nervous about telling my relatively new employer that I had some news. And I can remember sharing with Emma Swan, my boss that I was pregnant. And she just kept hugging me and just kept telling me what wonderful news this was. And she was so excited for me, asked if I knew the gender. And I did at that point, it was another boy and she was saying “You’ve got two boys” and it was just the most wonderful thing. But her reaction to it and then and then the reaction of those at the C-Suite level and ex-partners was just fantastic. People were reaching out to me to say they’d heard the good news and congratulations, asking me questions and it was a really lovely time.
So straight away I felt like this huge news in my life was just some news being celebrated by everyone and it was just a really lovely time. The culture there is fantastic, I find from a support point of view, a working parent point of view really from the start of that journey. So even at the pregnancy stage, everyone checked in on me when I was pregnant, making sure you know I was OK and then they came to visit me when Teddy arrived. And when I was on mat leave, I was always invited to things like the staff conference or any away days we were doing. I really did feel like I was still a valued part of the team, you know being told about any key decisions that were going to be made. From a support point of view, they were just wonderful.
When I was it was pregnant, [my other son] Freddie would have been three and he is just one of those children who catches absolutely bloody everything. To the point that he’s had chicken pox twice! He’s had scarlet fever, lots of chest infections, tonsillitis. I think every holiday bar one we’ve been on abroad we’ve had to make a trip to the hospital. The holiday we’ve just been on, we had to go and visit the doctor’s, he catches everything. When I was relatively new at Forbes, I often had to take time off to go and look after him, pick him up, things like that. And I just always felt so supported.
The first thing that Emma always asked was “What do you need us to take off your desk, what work have you got going on” A few hours after I’ve spoken to Emma, Jonathan Holden who’s national Head of Employment would give me a ring to see if I was OK, and I was just so supported and reassured. At no point was I made to feel like I was being an inconvenience or more over was my child being poorly an inconvenience. I was never once at Forbes made me feel any less capable because I’m juggling, being a mum and working full time. They have never made me feel any less capable. I feel that I am empowered. I feel totally supported. I feel like my children’s health concerns, my health during my pregnancy and my children starting nursery school, are all to be celebrated, all to be discussed and at Forbes, you’re encouraged to very loudly parent, which is a phrase I’ve learnt very recently.
I love the fact I know Jonathan’s children’s names; I know Emma’s children’s names. I know our managing partners’ children’s names. You know, it’s fantastic. Your family life is there to be celebrated not to be hidden and it’s just been fantastic. It really has.
SG: That last point about you knowing the names of the people that you work with and that work above you in the firm is really interesting. One of the things that came out of the research we did is that a lot of people felt that they didn’t have someone senior in the firm being very successful in the firm but also being a parent at the same time, or to use that phrase, parenting loudly. So it’s great that you feel that you’ve had that experience there.
Picking up on what you were saying about the skills that you’ve gained since becoming a parent, that completely resonates with me. I’m so much more organised now because as you say, you have to be and I know exactly the nursery penalty that you’re talking about. I think it’s like £10 per 10 minutes at our nursery. But even more than the money, the thing for me is like, you know, if he’s the last one there and he’s playing on his own, I feel absolutely terrible. So yeah, all the things that we have to do so that we’re doing the same amount of work or more in some cases, in a short amount of time.
The experience that you’ve had at Forbes must breed loyalty for you, and you must think you know, I’m not going to go anywhere else.
JS: Yeah, absolutely. I had a catch-up one-to-one with Jonathan recently and I said “Jonathan, I will be loyal to you forever. I feel like I’m stick rock now, I say Forbes all the way through because they looked after me so much at a time when you were quite vulnerable when you’re pregnant, you’re going through this huge change. So I will be forever loyal and forever indebted because they really, really did look after me and they really did so. It absolutely does garner that loyalty when you look after your employees.
SG: Absolutely. And I think just to go back to the start when you were being quite honest and saying I, you know, I reached partnership before I had children. I’m not necessarily saying that this would have been your experience at the firms that you’ve worked for. But what think the challenges are in doing something like reaching partner level if you already have a family.
JS: If I look back at the way I operated pre-children, it just invariably was early starts, late finishes going to lots and lots of different BD events. I did a lot more travelling whether that’s doing seminars or going to tribunals in different cities. I just couldn’t operate like that now you know, I just, I just couldn’t do it. You know suddenly my routine has to be structured around drop off and pick up you know. I’m much choosier now about the events that I go to and how I spend not just my personal time with evening events but also time in the day because you have to be efficient, you have to get your job done.
I think it must be difficult for people going for promotions who have children if they’re not in an environment that enables them to be the best version of themselves and to still achieve what they can achieve and want to achieve in their career whilst balancing the fact that one phone call takes away from your desk and you’ve got to go home and drop absolutely everything that you are doing. OK, sometimes children are poorly, you might as well be able to do some work on your laptop, but sometimes they’re really poorly and you can’t do that, you need to be there for them. So I think it must be really difficult if you’re not in the right environment where a firm is going to make sure that you can achieve what you want to achieve with these new barriers that are in place that come with having children.
SG: Absolutely and I think it depends in some cases on what’s formerly known as like a progression framework – what boxes someone needs to tick to get promoted at any level within a law firm. Some of those things are going to be more challenging, so in terms of supporting working parents, it’s kind of recognising that the value that someone adds to a firm might not always look exactly the same but it’s you know it’s valuable, nonetheless.
JS: And I think that times have changed, you know, I was trained between 2007 and 2009 and times have changed so much in that time. I’d like to think the majority of firms have evolved but I can remember the days when you had to be a full-time employee if you wanted to be a partner, you know, and that’s just shocking. It does not have to be that way. It doesn’t. You know, it really doesn’t but you know what sort of message does that send? It’s not great.
SG: In your role, not just as a very successful lawyer and a mum, but as someone who works within employment as a practice area, what do you sort of see businesses or law firms getting wrong when it comes to supporting parents or not supporting parents?
JS: I suppose it would be not anticipating their needs and their changing circumstances. Expecting the same person maybe to come back from mat leave, who went on mat leave. Nothing prepares you for motherhood, you can read all the books, and you can talk to all the people going, but until you get your child (and no two children are the same), you just don’t know how it’s going to go.
And then when you return to work, and try to deal with the juggling of getting people ready for work who don’t want to get dressed and then dropping them off somewhere and having to do your own commute. I think as an employer you need to start recognising that employees just need to be in that more sympathetic, empathetic environment. I was clueless about how my life would change when I became a mum, absolutely clueless. Life really turned upside down. But I think, not understanding that the person returning to work has significant responsibilities. As a parent, you literally look at your phone and if it says nursery calling, you’re like “Oh my God, what’s happening?” And you know you think,” Oh my God, I’m going to go now.”
So I think it’s all about providing that culture. They’ve got to get the culture right. It’s about providing that culture that allows people to feel they can be their authentic selves. Making people feel they can parent loudly and talk about the fact that they’ve got children. They can talk about the responsibilities that come with being a parent. So for me, the most important thing that firms can do is to provide the right culture.
And so, in answer to your question “What, do we see that goes wrong?”, it’s providing the wrong culture and that doesn’t allow people to prioritise. The fact that they have a home life as well as a very important job, and often that home life has to come first.
I really think it’s so important. You can have all the policies in the world, written in a really exciting and user-friendly way, but if you don’t have the right culture, those policies aren’t really worth the paper they’re written on. You’ve got to have the right culture for people to thrive.
SG: And I think, you know, you said the word inconvenience before, and you know, at Forbes, you’ve never felt like you’re an inconvenience for kind of, you know, having the audacity to want children.
SG: And the business case, not just the moral standpoint with this, doing the right thing by people, but the business case for this is, we’re in a legal talent market crisis. There are fewer candidates out there and people are willing to move than ever before. Obviously, we’re a recruitment agency, we know how many vacancies are open at the moment within firms at all levels. And yet, firms are, as I said, I said at the beginning, scaling back on things like flexibility and homeworking. There’s this whole group of people for whom that’s going to prove a real challenge. And we’re seeing the impact of that in the market – people are moving with their feet and moving firms to kind of seek that flexibility elsewhere. But the opportunity is there for firms to get this right and be, you know, a great place for parents to work because so many firms are getting it wrong.
If you can get it right (I mean, you’re a great example of that), you’ve got a great lawyer who’s going to work very hard for you and stay for a long time.
JS: Yeah, yeah, I mean I’m very clear and speak openly about the fact that I’ll be very happy if the remainder of my career is spent at Forbes because I’m incredibly happy. I’m just incredibly happy in my job, it’s a fantastic, exciting firm to work for. And I think that’s the other thing as well, that has annoyed me in the past, where it’s seen that once you have children, it’s like, oh, OK, well, they won’t take the foot off the gas, don’t they? No, not at all. Why on earth? I’m talking about it from the mum’s perspective. If the mum wants to do that, then OK, absolutely fine. That’s fine. But a lot of women, don’t want to take our foot off the gas at all. If anything, work is my salvation, it’s my sanctuary, it’s my spa!
I couldn’t wait to work after my holiday, two weeks a one-year-old and a four-year-old! But it’s yeah, Forbes is definitely an incredible home for me and it enabled me to carry on being as ambitious as I felt prior to having children.
If someone is struggling with the juggle, due to where they work, they’re at the wrong firm, it’s not the right company for them, whether it’s a law firm, whether it’s another business, it’s not the right company for them, it’s not the right firm for them, so you just need to go and find your new home and find your natural home, because you don’t have to work in a toxic culture and you don’t have to work for a firm or for a company that doesn’t embrace women having children.
SG: Something else that came out of the research that we did, was that the people that I think felt maybe more poorly supported didn’t necessarily feel that it would be better anywhere else and I think that’s probably the saddest thing that came out of the research. Obviously, we know as recruiters that isn’t the case and again, you’re fantastic evidence of that. But I think also you know it’s on law firms to kind of be loud as employers about the policies that they do offer, the culture that they have specifically for parents because if this research does prove anything, it’s that not everyone’s getting it right.
So the opportunity for firms to maybe look at their policies that they’ve got in place and then make sure that that’s being communicated to the talent market is really, really important.
JS: I think communication is key and things like fertility policies, I think they’re so important now if you’ve got an employee who’s going through IVF. I happened to have a friend actually who works for a huge, huge global company. She’s going through IVF and she has a new interim manager because her manager was on maternity leave, the individual was based in Canada I think, so they didn’t have a face-to-face relationship and she didn’t want to have to tell him that she might have to take some time off to give some appointments and things like that. I said just look in your staff handbook there’s a good chance that because it was a huge business they may have a similar policy and they did, and she was so happy and she said she was so glad I’d told her to look there because it had given her all the answers she had to all the questions she had and she didn’t need to speak to her line manager and tell him what she was going through. She didn’t want to have to share that personal news with her immediate line manager and she had, they had a policy there that then told her without having to ask any other questions of any people and knew exactly what she had to do in those circumstances. So, having policies also just really helps employees, you know, who are going through really, you know, tough and sensitive times. Things as well like miscarriages, and bereavement, to have those policies in your handbook is really important. We definitely are seeing a cultural shift now to having more… I don’t really want to say family-friendly policies, but to have some more of those more personal policies, including the handbooks,
But there’s still a long way to go. But I do think it’s an education piece as well. I think people like me, employment lawyers, need to be speaking more at events about this when we’re educating our HR practitioners. We need to flag this with them and say, you now need to be considering having the following policies in our staff handbooks.
SG: Yeah, I think you’re right. And again, I think what came out of the research was that actually a lot of firms don’t have the policies in place. And it might not necessarily be because they don’t want to have those policies in place. It might just be because perhaps they just haven’t got them in place yet, or it’s not something that they’ve maybe thought about. Or the experiences that we’re maybe talking about aren’t the personal experiences of the management team and therefore, you know, it’s not something that’s occurred to them. But as you say, I think it’s great doing interviews like this because it’s something that, you know, I’m hoping that this interview will appeal to lawyers, but also law firms that want to learn more about how they can support parents more and those that want to become parents in the future.
Is there anything else that you think firms can do to support parents? more fairly, you know, either on the policy side or, as you say, culturally. We had some people complete their research that aren’t parents, don’t want to be parents and some people actually felt quite strongly that they were almost penalised in their firm for not being a parent in the sense that they saw a lot of their colleagues kind of getting to leave early, for example, to do the school pickups.
It’s a balance, isn’t it, in terms of not alienating people or punishing them for not having children. How would you advise that balance is struck?
JS: Well, first of all, I was that person and I want to be very clear and transparent on this. I was that person who felt bitter sitting at my desk when I was more often than not the last one in the employment team working the latest and thinking I’m the only one here because I don’t have children and I’m always the one who’s asked to do something last minute. I felt like that for quite a long time, I was 37 when I was pregnant with Freddie, so that does really resonate with me. Neither my brother nor sister have children, they’re both very career-driven. My brother lives in Spain now, he’s a deputy head teacher at an International School and my sister’s a Chief People Officer for a PLC. We have this discussion, if Claire wants to go to the gym or whatever her plans are after work, for her, it’s as important as well for her to leave her desk and go and do what it is she wants to do.
I do think it’s tricky. It’s hard for companies. It’s hard for businesses because you want all your employees to feel valued and that every single one of them is as important as the next. I think again, it comes back to culture, doesn’t it? It comes back to this culture of fairness. You need to have a friendly culture that sits alongside the policies that you create to ensure people take up the options that are right for them for their future, without the fear of being judged for it.
For me, it’s about having the right culture where people are encouraged to be themselves and allowed to be their authentic selves. being their authentic selves. But yeah it’s really hard. I vividly remember this one time, in particular, when I was sitting and seeing someone leave and thinking I wish I could leave but I can’t. Now of course I know now as a working mum of two that this particular individual, who had two children was probably logging off from a computer running out of the office, with loads of work still to do (this was before remote working was so common) and probably thinking “Oh my god, I’ve got to run to Manchester Piccadilly to get the train and go and do pick up”.
Yeah, so I guess in that instance, the culture wasn’t right because probably both the person with the children and the person without the children, we both probably felt quite frustrated with the environment and the culture that we were working in. So again, I think it’s all about the firm’s culture. Yes, the policies are important and yes, we must have these certain policies to meet the legal requirements, but I do really think it’s about the culture.
Like you said, the stats, it’s actually flexibility that’s the priority for a lot of individuals, not necessarily finances anymore. Much more, people look at what the firm is about. So it matters to people across the spectrum, right from that junior graduate recruitment stage, right the way through to people like me who have children and care responsibilities.
SG: A Yeah, absolutely you’re right and no firm is going to be able to offer everything and please everyone. How we advise firms when they’re looking at their employer value proposition (EVP) is that they shouldn’t try and be 10 out of 10 on everything but think about what their strengths are now and just try and build their EVP from that. Bearing in mind we know through other bits of research that we do on an annual basis that pay and flexibility are two of the three deal breakers for people in terms of attraction and retention. Pay, because of the cost-of-living increases and inflation, but flexibility and homeworking are also a massive factor for people.
We’ve talked about our policies here at Realm before and we got tons of flexibility. You know, that instance when you’re running out the door in the morning, the toddler won’t get dressed, won’t put their shoes on, you’ve had two hours sleep and you’re trying to be somewhere for nine o’clock – that generally doesn’t happen here. I mean, it’s great because our MD has his own two-year-old so that really helps as well. But if I didn’t have the flexibility that I do here, I would probably be working part-time or certainly reduced hours.
And that’s no good for my employer because we’re in a talent crisis and we need, we need bums on seats, they need me within the business. And that’s probably common for almost all businesses at the moment. So there’s a real opportunity for firms to get this right. As I said earlier in the interview, we are seeing firms scale back on that flexibility. Last year in terms of homeworking, the average number of days a firm offered was 3.9, this year it’s 2.7.
I empathise with that because when I speak to law firms in my role, a lot of the time people are worried about supervision and the learning experience of junior solicitors, which is which is absolutely valid.
You do sometimes get the impression that it is more of a cultural thing though or there is a supervision element, but really you know, people want it to go back to more how it was before the pandemic when everyone was there because they’re mindful of office culture and things like that. So, but I think it’s going to be a very interesting landscape for people who do you want or need that flexibility going forward and I think we’ll probably see people moving firms because of that, but also potentially people leaving the workforce or going part-time which isn’t good for anyone. Those are the challenges that we’ve got in front of us really.
JS: In terms of law, my perspective is that we’re so heavily monitored. We’re recording in six-minute units, so it’s very easy to quickly see someone who is not working effectively from home. It’s an industry where you would very quickly be able to identify that. But I’m also acutely aware that I’ve got another newly qualified solicitor starting on Monday and typically our team are not in the office on Monday. But for a first day I want us all to be in the office, so we can go for a team lunch. You need that learning by osmosis, so I think it is a balancing act and I don’t really know what the perfect answer is. I’m not sure there is a business out there yet that does. I just think you’ve got to be willing to adapt, willing to change and treat everyone individually. Really exceptional individual circumstances are different. We’re talking about being parents but people have all sorts of caring responsibilities, don’t they, it’s not just about children. So I think you’ve just got to make sure that you’re a very empathetic employer and make sure that people feel that they can talk at work about what the stresses are in their life.
SG: Yeah, absolutely. And we do get clients of ours asking us, what should we be doing to improve on this. So this is an open invitation to any firms that want to speak to Realm about that, we can let you know what the landscape is looking like in terms of policies and things like that and give you a steer on that.
Finally then, Jen, I think that’s a really great key takeaway that you’ve just given there for firms. On the employee side, on the lawyer side, you know, what advice would you give to someone who is either already a parent or thinking at some point in the future they would like to become a parent and they’re maybe a bit worried about also juggling a career in the law?
JS: Find the right home for you. Law is an incredible career. It’s really exciting. I absolutely love my job, I love the people I work with. You can love your job, you can love being a parent. It’s really hard, I’m not going to dress it up – it’s hard but if you’re in the right environment, the right firm, you absolutely can smash it. Look around you and just think will I be able to still thrive while coping with the juggle and still working in a really fast-paced demanding job? So, I’d say it’s all about finding that right home, the right home for you. Other tips, you can put potato waffles in the toaster! Pull up nappies, don’t bother with the ones where you have to lie them down. Pull up nappies, they’re the way forward. They’re probably my best tips.
SG: I love that we’ve finished on potato waffles and nappy pants. Absolutely. I didn’t know that about potato waffles, so I’m going to use that! That’s absolutely brilliant. So we’ve got a little bit of, you know, philosophical, a bit of practical advice all thrown into the interview.
Thanks so much for joining us today, Jen. It’s been absolutely fantastic to hear not only about your personal experience. I’m so made up for you. you are working somewhere that you feel so supported and you can thrive. This is what we aim to do here at Realm – to fit people in with those firms where they can just feel that everything… You know what it feels like when you’ve found your firm, don’t you think? And that’s what we aim to do here. Well, thank you so much for speaking to us today.