Tips from the top: Sandra Wallace, legal partner on how to get the balance right

Sandra Wallace is partner and head of equality and diversity for legal practice, DLA Piper. To spend quality time with her three children, Sandra works four days a week and takes a month’s break off over the summer holidays and at Christmas. Sandra also managed to secure a promotion to partnership level at the same time as reducing her hours following the birth of her first child.

Sandra Wallace is partner and head of equality and diversity for legal practice, DLA Piper. To spend quality time with her three children, Sandra works four days a week and takes a month’s break off over the summer holidays and at Christmas. Sandra also managed to secure a promotion to partnership level at the same time as reducing her hours following the birth of her first child.
 
Sandra joined DLA Piper as a trainee and in 1992 she qualified by 1994 and then became an associate three years later. In 2000 she felt she was ready to apply for partnership but this came at the same time as she was expecting her first child. Undeterred by the prospect of starting a family and rising up the ranks at a leading law firm, she decided to put in her partnership submission and as part of the business case for promotion Sandra indicated that she wished to return to work three days per week. Her parternship was confirmed in 2001.
 
“I wanted to come back three days a week and they agreed,” says Sandra, who admits  she was the very first employee to work part-time in the Birmingham office. “It was very much a case of ‘suck it and see,” says Sandra. At the same time as reducing her hours, Sandra was also awarded partnership; a year later with a bigger team to manage, the firm  once again accommodated her requests to change her working pattern by allowing her to extend her hours to four days a week, which she felt she needed to do to match her responsibilities.
 
In 2003 Sandra had her second child and in February this year she had a little girl and took five months leave before returning to work once more. As her family grew, Sandra decided that she would benefit from having a personal coach to help her address her work/life balance issues even though as part of her job she advises clients on equality and diversity. She felt she could still learn more. “Sometimes you just need to take a step-back,’’ she acknowledges. ’’You need to look at how your work and career impact on your children.”
 
Taking this time to re-evaluate her position and the way she conducted her life she took the bold step of approaching Tim Marshall, UK head of employment and partner at DLA Piper . “I wanted to take ‘chunks of time’ out to spend with the children,’’ she explains.’’ My two eldest children are aged nine and seven and they’re at school so whilst it is lovely having Friday to spend with the baby, it  doesn’t give me any time to spend with the other two children. With after-school clubs etc often that means they don’t get home until at least 5pm so even If I went down to three days a week it wouldn’t help.”
 
So from this year, Sandra has agreed with DLA Piper to take the whole of August off to spend the long, summer holidays with all three children. She will also be taking another month off over Christmas and New Year. “It really helps out in terms of making sure I get to school plays on time etc. It’s really important for me because whilst I love my clients and my job, I also love my children. I do want to have a good career but I also want to be there for my children.”
 
This first year is part of a trial and the period of absence will be covered by Sandra’s associate. “She will pick up my work whilst I’m away,’’ says Sandra. ‘’It’s a great opportunity for her to develop too. But I can’t promise I won’t look at my e-mails whilst I’m away. I want to keep an eye on things but I won’t actually be physically in the office.’’
 
Sandra says  now that she has a small baby she has had to be stricter about ensuring work doesn’t spill into five days a week, when she is only contracted to work four.  “All my clients know that I work flexibly so anybody who calls me on a Friday knows that it’s my day off. It’s really important that they do because having a baby in the background doesn’t work.”
 
Sandra’s own job as head of equality and diversity gives her the perfect insight into the struggles of both businesses and employees in getting to grips with the whole issue of flexible working. A large part of Sandra’s work is to get businesses to think proactively, that is to start considering diversity and family friendly issues before they are slapped with an employment tribunal claim for discrimination. “You have to get the business to buy-in to the whole idea’’ she says.’’ Lots of clients just don’t realise they have a problem. It’s only by analysing their business that they start to think about their approach. Often it’s not an intentional thing, for example if they recruit by ‘word of mouth’ they’re not thinking about who is passing on that message. If it’s all men, who are they going to be talking to – other men?”
 
Sandra is heartened by the progress made.  “If we think about everything we’ve got now in terms of legislation it looks good. We’ve got maternity rights and the right to request flexible working, but the problem is the application of it all. There is still a long way to go. In some respects in terms of equal pay we’ve gone backwards. In a recent survey by DLA Piper we showed that the pay gap in certain sectors is as much as 19% and whilst some pay claims get much Press such as the Birmingham City Council, where the cleaners and cooks won their case against bin men, the reality is that equal pay claims are still rare.”
 
Whilst the recession has put a lot of other business pressures on organisations and has partially  diverted attention away from flexible working, Sandra says that in some respects it has aided the cause.  “In the recession a lot of businesses turned to short-term working, reduced hours, etc, and it started to make businesses think outside the box, whilst on the other side women who were forced to work less started to think they actually quite enjoyed it!” All this says Sandra, can only add to further demands for more flexible working.
 
For Sandra, making time for her children and excelling in her career were two things she could not compromise in her life. She has demonstrated that it is possible to combine career and family and advises other women who want to do the same to always be honest with their employer. “Always talk to your managers and tell them how you want your career to develop. You can’t avoid the ‘elephant in the room’ forever. Think two or three years ahead and be honest about how you want it to work.”





Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *