Joanna Robson: Why I started Babylaw

Joanna Robson, an experienced lawyer, has been practising employment law since 2002 and returned to work after the birth of her son in 2007. But she swiftly found out that her flexible working arrangement wasn’t working out as planned resulting in her losing out on precious family time. Here, Joanna talks to Workingmums.co.uk about the motivation behind Babylaw, her own private practice, and why she feels a particular connection with the 200,000 pregnant women who are discriminated against each year.

Joanna Robson, an experienced lawyer, has been practising employment law since 2002 and returned to work after the birth of her son in 2007. But she swiftly found out that her flexible working arrangement wasn’t working out as planned resulting in her losing out on precious family time. Here, Joanna talks to Workingmums.co.uk about the motivation behind Babylaw, her own private practice, and why she feels a particular connection with the 200,000 pregnant women who are discriminated against each year.
 
Harry was born in 2007. It was a time of great joy, but overshadowed by the stress and strain that had surrounded the build-up. Working full-time whilst pregnant, Joanna continued to work around the clock in private practice, so much so that when the time came and she went into labour she was still working on the particulars of a claim for one of her clients.
 
“After I had Harry I put him at the forefront of my mind,’’ she says. ‘’I decided to go back to work after my maternity leave, but I asked for some flexibility and was given a reduced contract of four days a week, working from nine to three pm. “The problem was that I was working in employment litigation and this couldn’t always facilitate part time working hours, especially when Employment Tribunal hearings were listed on say my day off. My clients, predominantly employers at the time, also expected prompt around the clock service and weren’t particularly pleased if they couldn’t get a fast turnaround. As a result of this, I really struggled with my ethos of providing excellent client care and working part-time hours so that I could spend some time with my baby."
 
Joanna did turn to her boss for help but says Joanna: “You’re just not going to get promoted if you are seen as complaining so after three months I quit.”
 
It was a brave move and such was the empathy that Joanna felt towards other expectant and working mums that she decided to set up her own niche practice looking at these types of issues. “It was in May 2008 that I decided to launch Babylaw, a specialist employment law practice dealing exclusively with individuals experiencing problems at work because of their pregnancy, childbirth or maternity leave status. I did my research and quickly realised that there was no such service being offered to individuals with maternity related problems so I decided to jump at the chance. Sex Discrimination law is fast changing, varied and interesting, which was the main appeal for me in setting up Babylaw. I also felt I identified better with individuals that I was fighting their cause for.” says Joanna.
 
Joanna runs the business from a small office which is open Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm. Joanna also understands that some individuals who may be having problems at work cannot speak during such core working hours so she also offers an out of hours service at a mutually convenient time on an appointment basis. Babylaw also offers a 30 minute free consultation so that those individuals can be given the opportunity to be given sound legal advice on whether they have a case or not.   There is no further obligation on the part of the individual if they don’t want to take matters further. The great thing for the clients is that if there is no case to answer, Joanna will tell them so, but if she advises litigation is the way forward, the fees will only start incurring on a ‘no win, no fee basis’ making it fail-proof for many.
 
“I do empathise with those who are either pregnant or on maternity leave yet are having problems at work. Such treatment often comes at a time when the client dosen’t have any money, or the money that they do have goes straight on the baby, hence my reason for offering the free initial consultation so that my clients have a better understanding of the case they may or may not choose to bring against their employer” says Joanna.
 
On the types of issues that Joanna is presented with, she says that she gets many cases in which flexible working requests are denied by the employer. Joanna says “During the 30 minute free consultation, I often give my clients some pointers of what should be included in their appeal letter, where for example their flexible working request has been denied. I always stress the importance of comprehensively exhausting the employer’s internal procedure in the first instance because the Tribunals will want to see that you have explored every avenue prior to going to litigation. Most of my clients need help with what they should say.”
 
It has been seen on many occasions that employers often reject a flexible working request on the grounds that they can’t accommodate it – this is permitted in law provided they can give an ‘objective, economic or business justification’ for it. Joanna says that one such case she is currently working on is where a mum requested to go back part-time but the business has rejected the request without justifiable reasoning. Joanna says that in a case like this it would be permissible for the employer to reject the request provided they could prove that the granting of such a request would compromise the business reputation or continuity. .Where businesses come unstuck is if they don’t practise consistency among their workforce and instead, adopt a subjective, biased approach to such requests for their employees, she explains. “In this case, other colleagues in similar roles had been permitted flexible working, yet they attempted to deny my client the same benefit.”
 
Joanna says that she sees a number of her clients resign where their flexible working request is not agreed and they cannot contemplate putting their babies in full time child care. Joanna says, “It is disappointing to see so many businesses lose out on key talent because they won’t give any flexibility in the workforce” but she says that reinstatement can sometimes work even though it can be awkward for the employer and the employee, especially if the employee has alleged acts of sex discrimination against that employer. “It can be quite uncomfortable but an employee returning to work would be protected under the law of victimisation, so in that way any returners are protected,” says Joanna.
 
For Joanna, her work is hugely rewarding and quite challenging at times. Joanna deals with a lot of enquiries every day, the majority of enquiries being from women regarding problems they are having at work because of their pregnancy or maternity leave status. She also occasionally gets an enquiry from the husband or partner ringing on behalf of their affected spouse. Depending on the nature of the enquiry, some clients will choose to let things lie because the baby is coming and they choose to focus on that instead of a litigation battle with their employer others want to proceed to the Tribunal so that they can see justice being done. 
 
“I will generally assess the merits of any given claim during the 30 minute free consultation which is conducted either by telephone or by email. If I believe there are sufficient prospects of success, I will offer my services to advice and represent that client and I generally offer two funding options, namely either a No Win No Fee agreement or insurance funding. With the former, if an employment tribunal does rule in the client’s favour and awards them compensation, then I will take an agreed percentage of that award by way of my fees for assisting them with their case. A lot of women also don’t know that they can get help with their legal fees from their home contents insurance – it’s called family legal protection” says Joanna, but she warns: “You’ve only got three months to issue proceedings in the Employment Tribunal from the date of the last act of discrimination or the date of your dismissal so I urge clients to make a quick decision as to whether they intend to proceed with their claim or not.”
 
Joanna now hopes to expand and grow the business.  Babylaw exhibits each year at the Baby Shows which run throughout the UK and they also feature in a number of maternity publications. Joanna says: “We are getting more and more enquiries now from word of mouth and recommendations and the feedback which we receive for our services are commendable. However, I’m mindful of the recession and I don’t want to expand too quickly and compromise the excellent level of service we offer,’’ she says.  The upside of running the business is that she runs the show and calls the shots when it comes to working hours. “I have the work-life balance I have been craving since having Harry in 2007 and whilst I may work very long hours on occasions in order to prepare for a case or meet a deadline, it’s not always like that, I do get to spend some time with my son in the week as well.” Harry goes to child care part time, which fits around Joanna’s usual working week.
 
Laughing about a comment made to her at a recent baby show she attended, Joanna says that one of her key business values is integrity.  A fellow exhibitor at the show said to Joanna ‘so you’re not an ambulance chaser, you’re a pram chaser’. With so many women being discriminated against each year on the grounds of maternity and pregnancy, it looks, however, as if Joanna won’t be short of work to do. 
 
Joanna can be contacted at www.babylaw.co.uk on Tel : 08445 61 11 61 and at email : jo.robson@babylaw.co.uk





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