An ongoing conversation: women's success at work/life balance in the legal sector

12th March 2018

An ongoing conversation: women's success at work/life balance in the legal sector

The industry is full of female role models who are proof you can do it all, write Cailin Peek and Nasreen Chohan of GRM Search.

Women today have become forces to be reckoned with. With so many trailblazers and natural leaders succeeding throughout the legal profession, their accomplishments and achievements are truly inspirational.

In addition to their success in their firms, many also balance successful careers with a happy yet busy family life. This is often despite further progress still having to be made in the corporate world to ensure success in both areas.

The plight of working women who often feel the pressure of having both a successful home and work life continues to be a topic of discussion for many.

While strides have been made to improve the working mother’s environment, there is no doubt that unless immense outside support and an understanding working environment exists, it is still a tough gig.

A support system makes all the difference
So just how do the many women who have found a successful balance do it?

Refqah Fataar Ho-Yee, a director and conveyancer at STBB Attorneys in Cape Town and mother to 2 children, shared how she accomplishes this. “After running my own private practice for 10 years I joined Smith Tabata Buchanan Boyes, an established, large property law firm, as a director. I brought my practice and clients with me. I am in a very fortunate position of having both a great support structure with outside help but also a partner who shares the responsibilities of parenting with me”. 

Having outside support and sharing the responsibilities with her spouse means that she is as close to balance between work and family as she possible could be.

When it comes to working Moms, many women find that catching up on anything urgent once their children have gone to sleep, is a great way of managing high workloads and ensuring urgent matters are dealt with timeously. This shows that planning, support and structure play vital roles in being successful as a career woman with an active family life.

Fahdia Bhyat, a partner at Bowmans for the past 7 years, spoke of her strong support structure at home which has enabled her to find an ideal balance while still managing her career. A single mom, Fahdia has chosen to live closer to her family and support system which means a 2-hour daily commute to the office. She has adjusted her working hours to accommodate for her daily commute and her employer has willingly agreed to it. This flexibility allows her to run her practice effectively and according to her unique personal circumstances.

Fahdia had been firm about this flexible working arrangement with her previous employers and believes that this flexibility allows her to achieve her personal/work life balance. Having said that, she feels an issue that still arises is that the legal fraternity remains male-dominated with not sufficient cognisance taken of the challenges faced by female legal practitioners.

Mother of a 6 year old daughter, Deborah Carmichael is a director at ENS, Africa’s largest law firm, and the main breadwinner in her family.

Having a strong support system in place with her partner and mother has positively impacted her work and how much she is able to achieve and helps with creating the balance between work and home life that many aspire to.

“You need to educate your co-workers and clients so that they understand how you balance work and home life. My clients know and accept that I work from 8-5 only unless of course there is a matter that needs urgent attention or it is after my daughter is asleep,” explained Deborah. Most clients are also parents and so are generally accommodating.

It is important for me to be a role model to my daughter and show her that women can achieve whatever they want to, including working but also being a mother. Modern technology also, of course, helps by allowing me to do whatever I need to do from home. This means I’ve found a good balance between assisting clients and helping raise my daughter successfully.”

Not only has Deborah socialised her clients in the way she works but also her co-workers, meaning there is very little overlap between work and home. Deborah has been firm with her clients regarding this to ensure that she is able to maintain the balance.

Deborah was named director before she became a mother. “Being off during maternity leave is still an area of concern in that it doesn’t only set you back 4 months but affects your progress for a good couple of years. While you are out of office, work needs to of course be done but this means other people will pick up your clients and build relationships with them.”

It is fortunate that ENS has a flexible maternity leave policy. However, it remains problematic that when you return to office, much catching up needs to take place before you can continue where you left off to start a family.

As with Fahdia, Deborah feels the law remains one which is male dominant. “Not to take away from working fathers in any way but the struggle in finding a balance between motherhood and work is far more difficult for females who carry the mental and emotional workload of family life and something which men (even those men who do their fair parental share) do not necessarily fully appreciate”.

As is often the case with successful career women who are mothers, Deborah has found that being a mother has made her more driven and motivated to succeed because she has a daughter who depends on her and will one day possibly emulate her success.

The stress of wanting to succeed
Another successful lawyer shared her very honest views around her struggle with managing the stress that comes with being a partner in a top law firm, especially after making partner at a relatively young age of 27 years old.

Wanting to remain anonymous for this article, she feels strongly that work stress has been the reason for her infertility as doctors have found no medical reason preventing her from having children.

Having said that, she also believes it would be hard for her, in any event, to succeed if she was both a mother and partner of a large firm. Often the reason for not being able to balance family and career in a busy law firm is that it is extremely hard to achieve budget and the often tough targets set with a satisfactory family life.

The pressure of achieving at work can directly affect and alter life outside of the office. And starting a family also has the ability to slow down or even stop progress up the partner ladder for many women.
However, this needs to change, and we believe that this is going to happen. With more and more women empowering themselves and proving themselves in the seemingly male-dominated environment we believe it is definitely possible to have a well-balanced career and family life.

The factors affecting success
Of course individual situations are significant when considering specific women’s roles in the workplace as some are able to rely heavily on outside support systems but the message is clear that it is still not possible for mothers to manage a successful career and family life in the same way that men can as fathers. However, these roles are changing, and women are asserting themselves and their needs in the workplace thereby creating the balance that they need.

And more alarming is that it appears too frequently that women are still being restricted despite their abilities and experience. This shows that men and women, despite their outside situation, are still seen as different in the workplace.

However, conversation is rife on this topic which can only lead to change. This year’s International Women’s Day has seen exceptional coverage on dialogues being initiated in all sectors across the world. The secret to change in this area of the working world is understanding, perseverance and having both male and female champions, companies across the globe are starting to change, but more must be done.

Nasreen Chohan and Cailin Peek are both admitted attorneys and are now Principal Consultants in the Cape Town office of GRM Search, a multi-award winning legal recruitment company with bases in Africa and Asia.