Balancing life as a barrister and a parent

By Jerome Doraisamy|20 January 2020

Life at the bar is, arguably, one of the more challenging vocational paths a legal professional can embark on. The assumption of parental responsibilities can and does add a layer of complexity, not just to one’s schedule but also one’s very existence.

“Provided that barristers execute their commitments to the clients and to the administration of justice, they can work exactly how they like. This is one of the benefits and attractive features of working at the bar,” proclaims Victorian Bar CEO Katherine Lorenz.

This is undoubtedly so. Unlike the traditional 9-to-5, barristers have the (theoretical, and often practical) freedom to undertake their work in ways that make sense to them. Synonymously, however, barristers – for whom raising a family is also important – managing the juggle of life at home and life in chambers in a meaningful, constructive fashion can be trying.

This feature explores the familial and vocational paths that five barristers from across the country have taken in managing the juggle, as well as flesh out the practical and institutional ways in which the legal profession can better support those at the bar.

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Tim Hammond’s journey

Former Labor politician Tim Hammond – who was the federal member for Perth from 2016 to 2018 – has had a career unlike most if not all barristers.

“Before going into parliament, [my wife and I] had a really frank and open conversation about whether we were all up for what we anticipated to be a pretty big change in our lives. One of the many wonderful things about the bar is that, notwithstanding court appointments and commitments, I do think that it does offer a fair degree of flexibility if you choose to manage your diary in that way,” he tells Lawyers Weekly.

“As a family, we did decide that it was something that we were all up for and we put into place a lot of strategies about how we might be able to overcome any issues that were created by absence and distance and all those sorts of things, given what life has to look like as a federal MP from Perth.”

Then, in 2017, Mr Hammond and wife Lindsay had the “very delightful but mildly unexpected surprise” of their third child, which meant that they suddenly had three children under the age of six.

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“It was becoming very apparent that the absence from home and the time demands of doing your job properly as a federal MP with portfolio responsibilities (I was also a shadow minister), just meant being away from home an awful lot. We were all up for that in theory, but it became really clear that it was having a really deleterious effect on kind of just the integrity of the family unit,” he describes.

“We had some really, really unhappy kids. My partner was under a lot of pressure. I was under a lot of pressure, and we were in a position where things were becoming increasingly unmanageable in terms of keeping the show on the road.

“We formed a view again, as a family, that unhappiness can be managed for a particular period of time, but if you’re not proactive about doing something about it, unhappiness can morph into something more insidious pretty quickly if it’s not arrested.”

It soon became apparent to Mr Hammond that the “only feasible way to arrest that, or reverse it”, was to step out of federal politics.

“I was incredibly fortunate in that regard, because I’ve always enjoyed my life at the bar and as a barrister a huge amount. I didn’t leave it because I didn’t like it. I left it because there was an opportunity that came up, which the timing I could not control,” he says.

“For that reason, making the transition back to the bar, I’ve been very lucky because it’s been work I’ve enjoyed, the practice has picked up pretty quickly, and it does allow me to structure my life as a dad and a husband, in a way that really maximises the time that I can be home, making a contribution in the lives of my kids.”

In conversation with Lawyers Weekly, Mr Hammond repeatedly notes the uniqueness of his circumstances and is hesitant to speak for the broader community of barristers. But he acknowledges wholeheartedly that striking the right balance between the personal and professional realms is a “challenge that’s got to be met” by the bar.

“It requires a constant level of checking in, to make sure that, as a dad and as a partner, I’m discharging my duties in that role as well as I possibly can. I do think there is a huge temptation as barristers to constantly be concerned about where the next brief comes from, and therefore the risk is we take on too much. To do a good job as a barrister, you need to provide the appropriate level of service, which means turning around work, turning around good quality work,” he outlines.

“But unless you constantly monitor how that sits, in terms of also discharging your primary and fundamental obligation, which is as a dad and as a partner, or husband, it ain’t going to work.

“I’m not suggesting that I’m the guy who gets it right, but coming back to the bar I guess for the second time, I had the great fortune of being very aware of the needs of time, to maintain that balance from the start. It’s always very front and center with how much I’m taking on, what I’m doing, and when I’m doing it. And, more to the point, how I balance that [so I can be there for those] ‘1 percent moments’ where just being around is important.”

In political circles, Mr Hammond was touted as a potential future prime minister before his sudden departure from federal parliament. But, speaking to Lawyers Weekly, he appears not to harbor a screed of regret, and instead considers himself “very lucky”.

However, he “acknowledges and appreciates” that it has perhaps been easier for them than for others and is fully cognisant of the environmental challenges that face all barristers, such as the absence of sick leave.

“You are your own entity. That becomes part of a real challenge as a barrister, is intuitively knowing, knowing of course that you’re only going to pay the mortgage if you’re sending out fee notes,” he says.

“You’re only going to send out fee notes if you’re going to get briefed, and therefore typically as a barrister – I think you often hear it from those much more senior than me – the instinct of never quite knowing where your brief comes from can [motivate one to take on] too much work, which then becomes a trap in its own right, in terms of discharging your own obligations as a father and a partner.”

That challenge for barristers to discharge their personal and professional duties in alignment with one’s needs is an onerous one, he surmises. Such an attitude is borne out by the experience of women barristers across the board, and Mr Hammond is not oblivious to this fact.

“I think it is different for women barristers, fighting for work in this world. I suspect it’s much tougher. It shouldn’t be, and we’ve got to make sure that it’s not,” he says.

The motherhood experience

When asked about managing the juggle of life as a barrister and mother, barrister, mediator and mother-of-three Rachael Hempling, who is based in the Gold Coast, was direct: “[It’s] exhausting, to be honest”.

“Work as a barrister often requires last-minute preparation and unpredictable hours in court. I recall a time when I was still in court in a trial at 7:00PM thinking, ‘I hope my husband picked the kids up from day care!’ I didn’t feel I could ask the court to adjourn briefly so I could check my kids were being cared for. In hindsight, perhaps I should have,” she reflects.

Melbourne-based barrister Evelyn Tadros (who recently had her second child) explains there are both advantages and disadvantages of being a parent at the bar – in keeping with the sentiments proffered by Ms Lorenz earlier in this piece.

“Some advantages are that I have a level of control of the number and type of briefs that I will take on, the hours that I will work and where I will work. I also don’t have to ask permission from anyone but myself if I need to come late due to my child having a meltdown or childcare arrangements falling through or needing to take a day off to look after my sick child,” she outlines.

Conversely, she continues, the disadvantage is that when one works for themselves, it is “very difficult to have clear, defined boundaries” of only working certain days or certain hours per week.

“The work just has to get done whenever you can, so I often find myself working until the early hours of the morning as that is when I usually have clear uninterrupted time to work. And although I do have some control over the workload, litigation is inherently unpredictable so I can find myself some weeks having to work super intense hours and other weeks being relatively quiet,” Ms Tadros says. 

“I am lucky as I can generally call on our grandparents to assist when this happens and even, at last minute, but I imagine this type of work life would be much more difficult if I didn’t have such flexible support. The other disadvantage is that as a self-employed person, I don’t have fixed paid sick leave, carer’s leave, maternity leave and that expenses continue to rack up.”

While there is not specific data confirming that female barristers may delay family planning until such time as they feel established in their careers, anecdotal evidence gives rise to such an impression.

Ms Hempling directly confirms this from her experience, noting: “I made an active decision to put off having children so I could build my career as a barrister first.”

Ms Tadros, similarly, wanted to have “at least a few years” at the bar before becoming a mother.

“Of course, as a woman, there is an intense amount of social and biological pressure of trying to have kids before an age at which it becomes too risky or difficult and that certainly played a role in terms of my planning,” she espouses.

“Although a man’s age may also play a factor into some of these risks, it just does not compare to the amount of pressure that women experience. In an ideal world, I would have been much more established at the bar before having children, but I would have risked my chances at having a family at all if I did that.”

For Brisbane-based barrister Jennifer Sheean, who has two adult children, family was a factor in the timing of her bar career, albeit in that her children’s ages determined when she made the transition.

“I waited until my youngest child was into her teens before going to the bar because that meant (I hoped) that she was more equipped to deal with the realities of me being at times more focused on my work than on my home life,” she ponders.

“My gender didn’t impact my thinking as such; the realities of being the single parent that did not have the other parent in the same city was a larger issue for me.”

According to Ms Lorenz, making the decision to have a child or take on parenting responsibilities is a “very personal” matter.

“Regardless of gender, parents consider their financial, professional and personal circumstances before they make that decision. While we haven’t asked the question to the bar as a whole, I would not be at all surprised that making that decision at a point of more financial and professional security is a factor taken into account,” she posits.

Reflecting on both her own experience and what she has perceived, Ms Tadros says she “can definitely understand” why female barristers would feel that they need to choose between work and family.

“There is no doubt that taking two periods of extended maternity leave within a short period of time and having periods where I will need to really manage the amount and types of work to fit it in with family life have affected and will continue to affect my barrister career,” she recounts.

Ms Hempling backs this up, pointing to the constraints some women may be burdened with: “Some of my female barrister colleagues are the main breadwinner but still the main caregiver as well when it comes to the juggle of work and family.”

“I’m not sure many of my male barrister colleagues have the same challenges,” she hypothesises.

Ms Tadros says: “I have also chosen to breastfeed both my kids until they are at least one which means that it makes sense if I’m the primary caregiver as opposed to my husband. That said, after just having my second child, my husband is taking on the lion’s share of looking after our eldest and doing the house chores while I tend to the newborn.”

The experience of these three barristers appears to be reflective of the broader profession, especially when considered in the context of unpaid hours worked by men and women respectively.

Unpaid hours

Several months ago, Lawyers Weekly covered in detail the stark difference in unpaid hours being completed by men and women, respectively.

According to the Victorian Government’s Office for Women, the average female provides 1.6 times more value in unpaid work and care than the average male, with women spending an additional 13.1 hours per week on such unpaid tasks. Further, it found that women spend 28.6 more working days (or 1.4 more working months) per year than men on unpaid work combined.

The impact of such additional responsibilities, the research conducted by Deloitte deduced, leaves women with a lot fewer hours in the day to do their professional work.

According to Sydney-based barrister Jane Needham SC, who is a former president of the NSW Bar Association, “things aren’t changing as quickly as they need to”.

By the time she gets to work, she explains, she has already “used up all my advocacy, mediation, arbitration skills, getting three kids dressed, had breakfast and headed out the door”.

“It gives women an added burden of hours. [The Women’s Gender Equality Agency] puts the average unpaid hours done by women at 56.4 hours a week, and 64 per cent of [that is] unpaid work. For men, 63 per cent is paid work of their similar number of hours a week, 55.5.”

More shockingly, Ms Needham cites the following statistic from the 2014 NSW Bar Association Practising Certificate Survey: “Fifty-seven per cent, the majority of women at the bar have no children. Thirty-four per cent of men at the bar have no children. And that says to me that the one thing that is an indicator of success at the bar, is not having to do all of the stuff that comes with child rearing. I can certainly say, as a mother of three, it’s an enormous impact.”

A conversation with Mr Hammond imbibes the idea that he delights in the unpaid fatherly hours, seeing his familial duties as part and parcel of keeping his “eyes on the prize” for what’s important to him.

“Do we really want ourselves a life at that stage where we look back and think to ourselves, ‘Gee, I’m glad I worked 80 hours this week’. Or, do we want a life that we look back at ourselves and we say, ‘I’m so pleased that I was there for my kids in a way that created a meaningful connection that was important to them?’”

Unquestionably, the three female barristers we spoke to also revel in their roles as mothers. But the disparity in unpaid hours between the genders remains, and will continue, Ms Sheean posits, until such time as housework and parenting duties are no longer viewed as “women’s work”.

“It’s interesting how many fathers still refer to parenting duties as ‘babysitting’ or ‘helping’ their wives,” she ruminates. 

“I know of one high-achieving woman barrister who has a husband who stays at home and another woman barrister who employs someone to cook her family’s meals. These women have found something of a solution to the issue, it would seem.  Although I couldn’t say whether it is a complete solution!”

“I think we need to normalise the ability of men to enter into childcare to be valued for housework, to be valued for the unpaid labor that they do with the elderly, and at the moment that is not happening,” Ms Needham argues.

On this particular issue, there is “a lot more to be done” by the bar and the broader legal profession, Ms Lorenz cedes.

How are our bar associations supporting family planning?

NSW Bar Association president Tim Game SC sums up the juggle succinctly by noting that balancing professional responsibilities – by way of care for young children or elderly parents – is a “complex burden” for many barristers.

“Since 2014, the NSW Bar Association has reserved a number of full-time equivalent and casual childcare places in the CBD. However, extended court sittings or the cold and flu season can stretch even the best care arrangements to breaking point for both male and female barristers of any seniority,” he muses.

The bar association is “particularly concerned by the effect it can have on the retention of promising junior barristers”, he adds, who might be struggling to establish their practice.

“This year, the association surveyed members regarding their experience with family care. The data confirmed that a significant number of members had experienced problems meeting their carer’s responsibilities as a result of conflicting obligations to the courts, to clients and to their families,” Mr Game notes.

“In response, the association is considering a more integrated model to deal with the evolving nature of parental and caring responsibilities for members of the bar.”

Ms Lorenz similarly acknowledges the necessity of providing suitable support to all of the association’s members, “including those with parental responsibilities”, so that they can effectively manage their professional responsibilities.

“As a profession, the bar is perhaps lucky, in that barristers have always been engaged individually as self-employed professionals – they are, if you like, the original flexible on-demand legal providers. This provides more workplace flexibility than roles in-house or in private practice have traditionally afforded,” she says.

“The bar has a range of initiatives to promote both the physical and mental wellbeing of our members, and that includes helping them gain support when the professional and personal conflict. The bar’s parental leave policy provides support for those members (male or female) taking leave from chambers to take care of children.”

“As you can appreciate, the bar doesn’t employ barristers – they are self-employed – so the Victorian Bar does what it can – by way of chambers rental subsidy and a discount on subscriptions,” she notes.

Ms Tadros benefitted from Victorian Bar’s parental leave offering, she identifies, saying the subsidised rent was a “huge assistance” in ensuring she could keep her chambers and simultaneously afford to take maternity leave.

“While male barristers could access this if they are the primary caregiver within the first 12 months, it is more often that the mother will take 12 months’ leave meaning that many male barristers may not be eligible for this scheme,” she speculates.  

Expanding this type of scheme for the first two or three years of a child’s life, she submits, would mean more men might take time-off.

“In terms of policies to better support women, anything that reduces expenses for people taking parental leave, would be welcomed. It would also be very helpful if courts, tribunals and commissions were more understanding of counsel being on parental leave rather than seeing it as a matter of ‘counsel’s convenience’ when dealing with timetabling issues.”

One such area that broader environmental professional structures can be addressed by the bar is through equitable briefing policies, Victorian Bar flags, which again has been covered in detail by Lawyers Weekly. Such policies, the association says, are having a “positive effect” on increased briefing for women.

“Equitable briefing is intended to drive cultural change within the legal profession, support the progression and retention of women barristers, and address the significant pay gap and under-representation of women in the superior courts. With that enhanced financial security, and proactive support for the careers of women barristers, we would hope to drive the type of cultural and behavioural change that will balance the working and home lives of women and men,” Ms Lorenz outlines.

In order to directly address the disparity in unpaid hours, Ms Needham says actively encouraging male lawyers to take the same kinds of carer’s or parental leave that has traditionally been the realm of female professionals is needed.

There is – at least anecdotally – some movement in this direction, Ms Tadros feels: “I have an increasing number of male colleagues at the bar who do take periods of paternity leave or adjust their work life to spend more time with their family and I think that’s a really positive sign and I hope that more men will feel that they can do this in future without any stigma attached.”

But that stigma may still linger for some, Ms Hempling counters: “I think there is a stigma or at least a perceived stigma. I have hope that millennial male barristers will change things up a little as they seem to have a desire to step outside the gendered norms and share the load a bit more.”

“I would like to see a movement similar to Scandinavian countries where the mother and father are given one-year parental leave and can split it how they wish. I think we’d see a lot of fathers take up the opportunity if more flexibility can be offered,” she says.

Emerging technological advancements have resulted in changing how barristers are managing the juggle, according to Ms Sheean. The increased use of cloud-based technology, for example, has allowed barristers to be “less tied to an actual workplace”, she says, allowing them to work from home as needed.

That being said, one’s capacity to work from the couch is not the underlying issue, she qualifies.

“The issue is allowing for a reasonable balance between home life and career. There is some ability for individual barristers to control how much work they take on so that they can try to have some sort of balance,” she says.

“But that will not solve the issue of the times when, because they have taken on work, they have to work long hours or over weekends as a result of either the type of matter or a development in the matter, etc.”

Ms Needham also recognises that technology does not necessarily solve everything: “I often clean up my emails after the kids have gone to bed. So, they’ll do lights off at 9:00pm or so, then I’ll have a bit of a relax, and then at 9:30-10:00pm, I’ll do a bit of an email reply. And I realised that, unwittingly, I was probably putting my juniors and my solicitors under pressure, because if you get a 10:00pm email from a silk saying, ‘I'd like you to do this’, you might do it,” she recalls.

“And so, what I’ve done on my home laptop, and on my phone, I’ve put an email footer, which says, ‘If this email is sent out of hours, it’s because it’s convenient to me, and unless it’s specifically requested, I don’t expect a response outside of working hours,’” she says.

Moving forward

Managing the juggle isn’t easy for any legal professional. Barristers are no different.

As with all aspects of life, practitioners would do well to “be a bit kinder” to themselves as well as their colleagues, Ms Hempling says.

“This adversarial space that we work in will often see us judge and criticise each other for the choices we make whether related to family or not,” she reflects.

“Perhaps we should all be a bit more understanding that law is a tough gig, and we should ask each other whether we are ok once in a while. Sometimes it’s the small things that make all the difference.”

Ms Tadros supports this, arguing that “it would help if barristers spoke more openly and honestly about these issues so that we can better support each other.”

“Too often these issues are swept under the carpet, so it’s difficult to know how we can support each other,” she notes.

Ms Sheehan says kindness and understanding are a good start, but not enough: “The nature of the work means that these attitudes can only go so far in alleviating the issues.”

The profession’s associations, thankfully, also appreciate the role they have to play in achieving this. Ms Lorenz submits that all of the nation’s bar associations – “indeed, every organisation in the country” has a role to play in supporting barristers to achieve personal and professional success, she says.

“As bar associations, we meet, discuss and share ideas about achieving and supporting the health, wellbeing and personal-professional life balance of our members,” she concludes.

“Of course, we could all do more. But I am confident that we are building an inclusive, healthy professional with excellent opportunities for all who wish to join.”

Mr Hammond agrees, proclaiming that as a community, the bar needs to be doing “everything humanly possible” to make sure that barristers, particularly women, are “given every opportunity” to achieve a balance that makes sense for their idiosyncratic needs.

“That’s something that we should all strive to achieve, every step of the way, and until such time that there’s a general view that that balance has been achieved – and I strongly suspect we’re a long way off – we’ve just got to keep working at it,” he says.

Balancing life as a barrister and a parent
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