Flexible at the top

Martine Nathan is a partner in law firm Teacher Stern and works four days a week.

How easy is it for female lawyers with children to get to the top of their profession and stay there? Law, particularly commercial law, is known for its long hours culture and competitive nature so can you make partner and work flexibly?

Martine Nathan is a partner at law firm Teacher Stern and works four days a week. She had already achieved partner status and had been at the firm for five years when she had her first child 10 years ago and has subsequently had two more, now aged eight and four.

Since her first child was born, she has worked a four-day week, but is on call on the fifth day, more so since her youngest started nursery.

She says going back after her first child was born was very hard. She works on corporate and commercial transactions and when a corporate deal is nearing completion the work can be full on, often going into the late evening for a few weeks. "When I had a transaction nearing completion I sometimes would not see my son during the week. I personally found this  very difficult," she says.

She considered working in-house or teaching, but says that "for whatever reason I always got through, although sometimes this was by my fingernails" and the busy periods were not constant. "There were moments when I thought I couldn't do it," she says, "but I didn't have transaction after transaction and this provided some balance ."

She also comments that she worked with colleagues who were supportive and family orientated.  They were generally understanding and provided a good environment to work in.   Her second child came along relatively quickly and she managed to stay where she was, in large part because of the work culture at the firm and because outside of the busier periods work life balance is good. For each child she had six months off – she could not take any longer as, being a partner, she was self employed.

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For childcare, she has used nannies and a nanny share. Her current nanny starts work at 8am and finishes at 7pm and Martine's husband, who runs a chain of coffee shops, has the flexibility to pick up the children if necessary. Martine says lawyers tend to start later and finish later which makes the mornings easier, but she is anticipating her childcare will become more complex once all her children are in school and she only needs cover for the afternoons and holidays.

She says she could not have progressed in her career if she had to leave work at a certain time each day. "I would have hit a maximum level at which I could operate," she states.

However, she is able to take time off to go to school events and rarely misses one. She can, for instance, work from home in the morning in order to attend a morning event and go into work later. "There's a certain amount of trust having worked there for a long time and as long as I am performing and clients are not complaining I can retain a fair amount of flexibility," she says.

Technology has helped It means she can work later in the evenings when the children are in bed and doesn't always have to stay late at the office.

Career progression

Martine says women in the legal profession who seek to rise up the ranks face a more subtle form of prejudice after they return from having children and have to work harder to prove they are "up to the job". To make partner, they have to be prepared to put in the hours and bring in the money, she states.

She adds that more and more women are making partner level, usually before they have children. If they take a career break it can be "incredibly difficult" to get back into law due to its competitive nature and she is not sure that a woman could be a lead partner on a commercial or corporate deal if they worked only three days a week.  They may have to branch off into something like professional support law or teaching.

Martine adds that it is much harder to achieve partner level if you do not make it before you have children because of the hours required, but it is possible. "It just takes longer as you have to prove yourself," she states.


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