Alternative route to the top

Penny Miller has just been made partner of her law firm, Simmons & Simmons.

It’s a remarkable achievement since she is one of very few City lawyers who have followed an alternative route to partnership, by reducing her hours and temporarily coming off the traditional career trajectory.

Fourteen years ago when her first child was born she went part time and took the decision to take a less client facing role for several years, so her promotion process has taken longer than it might have otherwise.

To get there she put in 2,000 billable hours last year, something she got a lot of support for from her husband and family. “It was a family decision to go for it,” she says.

Penny, whose children are aged 14, 11 and nine, started at Simmons & Simmons as a trainee, and says flexible working and technology have made a big impact on her ability to rise up the career ladder.

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“My Blackberry has literally changed my life,” she says. “It has enabled me to do conference calls on the move. Clients just want to talk to me. They don’t care where I am. Now I can work from home more often too due to technology and I am able to log on in the evenings when the children are in bed. My firm is not concerned as long as I get things done.”

Pregnancy

Back in the 1990s, though, when she got pregnant a year after she qualified, flexible working was not common.

She returned on three days a week. Her department had limited experience of managing part time workers and she had to make a business case for doing so. She devised a less client facing support role for herself and because of her good relationship with her manager and the fact that the role filled a genuine business need, itwas agreed.

Penny did the support role from 1999 to September 2008. It coincided with the crash of the financial markets. “That meant I came into my own when our clients needed senior advisory lawyers to help them through the crisis, she says.

However, it was not possible in that role to make partner because the traditional model for partners is that they generate business and take more responsibility for running the firm. Nevertheless, Penny was able to build up business relationships globally by supporting clients and because she had the professional knowledge which showed she knew what she was talking about.

Penny says women in the legal profession often do not believe partnership is achievable for them, particularly if they have children. This is partly because of the lack of women in senior positions. Also, she says, women whose partners earn more than them tend to opt out when children come on the scene and then find it much more difficult to get back after a career break.

In her own case, she has always earned more than her husband who is a journalist. “I always anticipated I would work,” she says. “I think that was partly my family background – my grandmother was one of five girls who went to university in the 1920s. Younger women are more equal now and they want to keep working. Things will change.”

She believes that things are genuinely progressing for women in the legal profession, but says the rate of progress has been slow, due in part to an appraisal process for partnership which has historically been based on male attributes. She says: “Men still hold the majority in decision-making at the top and tend to judge others by their own criteria. Winning work is the only way to get them to take you seriously and you need to shout to the rooftops about what you have done.”

Role model

She believes it is good for her children to see her working and that it provides them with a good role model. This is also true for other women in her firm and in the wider legal profession. For her there is no such thing as a work life balance. “That suggests that work and life are separate when work is part of my life,” she says. “I read for work whilst my children are doing their homework I can be contacted wherever I am. My team in the office always know where I am.”

Her husband is a senior journalist at a major news organisation. Penny says that having the support of her husband has been key to her appointment as partner.

Up until three years ago, he travelled abroad a lot. He could be away for three weeks at a time. Penny also has to do around three trips abroad a year and has some evening engagements with clients.

Remarkably, the family have never had paid childcare. Penny’s mother helps out and her mother in law and other relatives also pitch in on childcare plus now the children are older they have access to a range of after school activities. “The logistics are key,” says Penny. “Somehow it works out.”

 





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