BlueSky co-founder: Too many assumptions are made about returning mothers

Sarah Lyons urges mothers in the profession to be comfortable with parenting out loud

BlueSky co-founder: Too many assumptions are made about returning mothers

Sarah Lyons has gone from aspiring actor to lawyer to advocate for mothers in the legal profession. The former lawyer experienced firsthand the challenges of being a parent and a legal practitioner after having her first child, and made the decision to ease the process for other women in the same position.

In this interview, the co-founder of parental coaching platform BlueSky talks why partners need to model good working practices for junior lawyers, the importance of being willing to turn down “non-promotable tasks”, and why “good is good enough”.

What initially got you into a career in law, and what ultimately led you to leave the profession?

I came from a family who liked good, solid careers. I actually wanted to do drama at university, but my parents were not so keen to have an unemployed actress living with them forever.

I enjoyed debating, and politics and law interested me – especially the human side of law – so I opted to specialise in employment law. Eventually, I left law after I had my first child. It became clear to me that the sacrifice was too big – what I was expected to achieve at work was not compatible with being a mother. My husband's career (surgeon) also involves long hours, so something had to give. I do wish I'd have had some coaching at that time to explore other routes such as in-house roles or another firm.

What in your opinion are some contributing factors that make this demanding career path especially demanding for women and mothers?

We all know about the stresses at play in law, and data shows that this impacts women more proportionately. This is compounded massively for mothers, who simply face emotional and professional hurdles that are distinctly unique to our industry. The ‘always on’ expectation, in tandem with the widespread emphasis on billable hours, makes it impossible for those with caring responsibilities to balance family and work, whilst the fact that PQE still runs during maternity leave puts intense expectations on returning mothers. And that’s just scratching the surface.

There is also a very short-sighted view of mothers in the industry, who should be seen as fantastic assets to the firm from a diversity perspective and because of how efficient they are. There may be a few years (when their kids are young) that flexibility might be needed, but ultimately these women are ambitious – they want to both progress their career and also be there for their kids.

In the past few years, mental health issues within the profession have received more of a focus – in your opinion, what are some areas in which progress has been made?

I am not sure much progress has been made, but there is a recognition now that health and safety includes mental health too. The problem is that excessive workloads and lack of manager support creates an environment that is ripe for problems. Often lawyers will mask how they are feeling, for fear of being seen as a failure. I think firms should encourage more sharing around how leaders protect their mental health. Even if people have struggled, this should not be stigmatised.

Ultimately, more needs to be done to improve the culture in law so that people feel safe in speaking up – either for themselves or if they're worried about colleagues. Partners should role model good working practices like switching off at weekends and during holidays.

What are some practical ways in which the profession can better support lawyers who are mothers?

Where do I start?! Firstly, too many assumptions are made about women when they return from maternity leave. This then affects important things like work allocation so that often, women are not given the interesting deals and there is a real bias inherent in work allocation.

We also know that women are often asked to take on too many "non-promotable tasks". Women are more likely to be asked to do these and also to say yes. Our coaching programme, BlueSky, really looks at this and how saying "yes" to everything is not necessarily going to help your career.

Our data shows that partners need to have more career-focussed conversations with their returning women, about their aspirations and how they can help them. Our data also shows that women's careers take, on average, nine months to get back on track after maternity leave. We'd like this to happen faster. By being more proactive in supporting women, we think this can be done.

What are some practical ways in which mothers in the profession can also take their own time back?

Recognise non-promotable tasks, and say "no" to them. Equally, keep an eye on what you're saying "yes" to and be strategic about what you take on.

Have some non-negotiables and keep them in your weekly schedule (e.g., date night, regular exercise) and make sure those around you (colleagues, partner) are aware of how important these are. Carve the time out in your diary and don't worry or feel guilty. Having non-negotiables keeps us balanced and able to achieve more in the long run.

Good is good enough – there are times when we need to accept this. When you have young kids, it's not going to be perfect to balance this with a busy career. Let go of perfection, because it's unattainable.

And ‘parent out loud‘ – let colleagues know which days you need to do the child pick up, and put it in your diary. Be a role model for younger women.

What do you hope to achieve in your role within BlueSky?

We hope to see more women reaching senior levels in law firms. Progress has been too slow. Through our group workshops, we are building a community of women who face similar challenges, but they remain ambitious and focussed on progression. We hope these cohorts of women will be the next generation of senior partners and role models to show junior women that you can have an amazing career and also be a mother.

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