Employment lawyer makes partnership on 4-day week
Elaine Aarons, top employment lawyer and a principal at Withers, says that women can have it all. By this she means that they can have a successful legal career in the City as well as balanced children and a happy family life. When we asked her how she thinks this is possible, given the hours and pressure that partners face, she cited working a four day week for the last 17 years as one of the reasons why she has managed it. Her moral of the story is to ask… Read below to see how and why a successful female partner thinks it can be done…
Elaine: I planned to go to the Bar but in the end decided to train at Norton Rose, as in the late 1970’s choosing to be a solicitor instead meant being able to combine a legal career with having a family. I stayed at Norton Rose for nine years. By the time I left in 1989 I had two small children under four. I was very happy there but left because of the work-life balance. The firm offered me a four-day week and the title of “head of employment”, but I was told that I wouldn’t make partnership unless I worked a five day week. Things have probably changed there now but this is how it was then.
I was sad to leave but was offered partnership at several other firms on the basis of a four day week. I moved to a firm that became Eversheds and had it in writing that I would not be pressured to work five days and that being part-time would not be a bar to equity. Equity prospects were assessed on performance rather than hours and I reached equity two years later. They stood by their written promise throughout my time there. I stayed at Eversheds for 16 years and went from setting up their employment practice with one other assistant to heading a department in the City office of 32 lawyers and consultants.
I moved to Withers in 2006, on the same flexible working arrangement. The move generally surprised people but it has been a very exciting change for me and was certainly the right decision. I had always acted for a mixture of employers and senior executives and saw the opportunity to focus almost exclusively on senior executives. There is a massive demand for this and very few people have a profile for it – it is the work I enjoy the most. Whilst I love working as part of a team and have great assistant solictors working with me, my advice and input is generally at the heart of the service we deliver. I get a real buzz out of this.
Law degree at King’s College, University of London
Law Society Finals
Joined Norton Rose
Partner at what became Eversheds
Joined Withers LLP as principal in the employment department
mtl: So what is it like working four days a week as an equity partner?
Elaine: I still put in significant effort and hours and commitment, but on a much more flexible basis. Like a full-time equity partner, I don’t have set hours nor do I separate my private life from work. I still work long hours by anyone’s standards, but compared to a hard-working full-time equity partner they are part-time. I do however still deliver a full-time partner’s contribution to the firm in terms of the work I bring in and the resulting figures.
Part-time working as an equity partner wouldn’t be suitable for someone who wanted clear demarcations and less pressure. However, it is fantastic for someone who wants to continue their career, but with a bit more flexibility. For 17 years I have been out of the office on nearly every Friday. I do get contacted on Fridays and I would always willingly look after client matters if they were urgent, but if I can arrange to deal with the matter at another time and this in no way cuts across my clients’ interests, I will.
It was very difficult in the early ‘90s to be upfront about the arrangement,. There was a tendency to pretend clients didn’t need to know. In the end I found that when I was open about it, clients did not have a problem with it.
I think that it has become much more acceptable now to work flexibly. However, I think that working only three days would be difficult in a client-facing role. Whether you will make it work depends on how flexible you’re prepared to be on your days off. It probably means that you work more than your contracted hours, in return for the flexibility.
mtl: Do you have any tips for female assistants?
Elaine: The difference between hitting the glass ceiling and moving on is whether you get involved in bringing in work. I think that women in general could benefit from more help with their business development skills, as those who are rainmakers will always be more valued than those who are just doing the job well. Try to learn as early as possible to go out and network and have the confidence to sell. This was the key to me being allowed to work in the way I do.
Women have one major failing, which is thinking that if they do the job well they will get noticed. Frequently they will come up against a man who punches above his weight – in a subtle way rather than overtly. Many discrimination claims are brought by women with better appraisals who get passed over in favour of less able men. We are all more aware of male rainmakers than female ones. For some reason men seem to find it easier to talk about how good they are.
Selling isn’t just about talking about work though, it is about developing relationships. From being a trainee onwards, think about who you know and how you can stay in touch with them. These people will become sources of work for you – don’t expect people to feed you work. Business development is also about developing a sense of responsibility for your career by not expecting work to just come your way. Take control and say “I am going to make my career move forward because I am going to create those opportunities.”
"If you want a part-time or flexible arrangement, don't be apologetic about what you are are asking for and ask confidently."
There are lots of ways of getting known for what you do. On the formal side there is the lecturing circuit, writing articles and attending networking events. Informally, keep your network going, keep in touch with people, realise that everyone you meet is an opportunity, but without being obnoxious about it. Network with people you like, not just for the sake of it, but with people who you can form long-term friendships with.
If you want a part-time or flexible working arrangement, don’t be apologetic about what you are asking for and ask confidently. It isn’t very politically correct perhaps but I still regard flexible working as a privilege. Don’t expect an arrangement as of right, but believe and prove that you can still deliver the results despite it. If you are highly valued then you will already be in a strong position. Think about your career going forwards – it is very important to plan what you want out of it. Never work just for the money. You will earn good money whatever you do in law, so look for a formula that will make you happy and that you will succeed with.
mtl: Do you have any advice for working mums?
Elaine: Communicate, be cheerful and try not to bring your stress home with you! There is nothing like a smile and positive thinking to influence a child. Never assume it will get easier because the idea that the first five years are the hardest is rubbish. We are also now part of a “sandwich generation” who often has to look after parents as well as children.
My mother taught me that you need more help than you think you need in the house and the importance of home cooking. Children would never remember whether it was me doing the cleaning or the ironing so I could delegate those – but I knew they would remember the food I cooked!
I think that my children actually needed me more as teenagers. When they were little, I could compartmentalise quality time with them, but teenagers need to be able to talk to you and need more time. As long as I was able to still deliver the results for my clients, I left work at 5pm or earlier to be home for my children and worked in the study while they did their homework. We ate supper most nights at a decent time. I am lucky that I had no material problems with my teenagers, but I think that this is because I always made them the priority. That said, this was combined with pushing myself to meet if not exceed client expectations. This often involved burning the midnight oil when the family was asleep.
There is not a one size fits all answer for working mothers and my life won’t be attractive to every woman. I believe in finding your own equilibrium. Lots of women don’t get the equilibrium they want though. Maybe they didn’t want to work as hard as they had to in the City, but they also didn’t want to give up totally either. These frustrations may surface later, so it is important to plan carefully what you want out of your career.
mtl: What do you think about career breaks for women while they have kids?
Elaine: It should of course be more possible. But the legal profession is not short of talented lawyers and there are never gaps to fill that can’t be filled. I made the decision to keep working with my husband’s encouragement as we thought it would be very difficult to get back in if I took time out.
I have just taken on a solicitor as a consultant who used to be a partner in a medium sized firm in the ‘90’s until she gave up work to be a full-time mum. She does really meaty work which is great for both of us. The flexibility of the arrangement means no increase in head count for me plus access to someone at lower charge-out rates despite her level. For her, it is a way back into the profession, so it is possible.
I know of the sadness of some women in senior roles who don’t have kids. It gets harder to have children in mid to late 30’s so I don’t think that women should specifically wait until they have made partnership before trying. Children are much more important than a career can ever be, but then I am very fortunate to have had both in my life.
mtl: Finally Elaine, is there anything you would do differently if you could have your time again?
Elaine: No, I have had fun, I’ve enjoyed my work and I’ve had the flexibility to be able to mix it successfully with my family life. I may have worked harder than I needed to work, but my secure and successful career has benefited my family.
At the time I left Norton Rose, I made a compromise as I went to a firm that was, at the time, not that well known, in return for more time with my children. However I feel that the result was as close as I could get to having my cake and eating it. I have never felt like a second class partner because I was less than full time and although I worked very hard, I got to spend more time with my family than most.
mtl: Thank you for your time Elaine.
Elaine is also a member of the The Hidden Brain Drain taskforce led by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett and made up of 19 global corporations. It looks into how businesses can nurture and retain highly qualified and talented women and minorities. The legal profession has been highlighted as one of the culprits for this so-called female 'brain drain'.
If you know any other lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives or who have a great work/life balance then please get in touch.
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