Rachael Mann talks to Judith Hooper, Partner in Commercial Litigation and Project Disputes at Bevan Brittan, about how Bevan Brittan's openness about Mental Health and well-being have had such a positive impact on their staff and firm, especially over the last year. Judith discusses how policies can be powerful enablers but that culture and management behaviours are critical in driving change within the profession.
Statistics show that women have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic whether that be by being more likely to have been made redundant / on furlough or taking the lead with home-schooling whilst juggling work, whilst other statistics show that increased working from home and flexibility will allow for positive steps forward for Women in work.
Now as we start making steps to move out of lockdown and towards ‘normality’, what do you think the lasting effects from the pandemic will be for Women in Law?
I hope it will be positive. There is still a societal issue with caring burdens falling disproportionately on women, even where women are earning higher salaries. An ONS survey last year found that women took on 78% more childcare than men during the first lockdown. The pandemic has shone a light on this, and there have been more conversations about the challenges (for both women and men) in balancing home lives with careers. We need to continue to have discussions about the tasks women tend to take on, including the administrative burden of running a household – what feminists call “the mental load”.
Historically, there has been a perception within the profession that requests to work from home and/ or work flexibly (requests which were both typically more likely to be made by women) were a barrier to progression. The pandemic has hopefully proved to a number of firms that there is no reason for that to be the case, and I anticipate that working from home and flexible working will also cease to be seen as a female issue. At Bevan Brittan the vast majority of lawyers were already working from home one day a week, and 23% of our staff work flexibly. I expect to see both men and women making more requests for both in future.
Bevan Brittan is a UK-Top 100 national law firm providing legal and advisory services advising businesses across construction, energy & resource management, higher education and financial services sectors, complementing the firm’s market leadership within housing, local government and health and social care.
Reflecting on the last 12 months, what have been the biggest challenges for you personally and what are the positives you would like to keep and take forward?
I already worked both flexibly and from home one day a week, so neither of those were new to me. I was also already working with colleagues across different offices, so as a team we were already used to working remotely, and had the technology to do so.
However, I found the collapse of the boundaries I had put in place between my home life and work life difficult. I try to be a good mum and to be a good lawyer, but it is almost impossible to try to do both at the same time and in the same place. I am incredibly proud of our team for continuing to deliver great results when we have all faced our own personal challenges.
One of the big positives has been the conversations to open up discussions around well-being and mental health in a way that was unimaginable in the legal profession a decade ago. At Bevan Brittan we take the well-being of our employees very seriously: we have trained mental health first-aiders. I have sought to remind myself and my friends and colleagues that anxiety is an entirely normal response to a global pandemic. It’s really important that we continue to have those conversations about how we are feeling, as many of us are mentally feeling the strain from the juggling act and the lack of the usual activities which are usually available to relax and switch off, whether that be a foreign holiday, a trip to the cinema or a night out with friends.
Another positive is that I used to spend a lot of my time travelling. I’m anticipating that there will be less travelling going forward, although right now I would also love a night away in a hotel!
What piece of advice do you wish you could go back and give to yourself at the beginning of 2020?
To be honest, I’m glad I didn’t know what was coming! From a business perspective, I could not be more proud of how we as an organisation responded to lockdown and how well we have performed. From a personal perspective, I’m glad that in January/ February last year I made it to the theatre, to a couple of gigs, for night outs with friends and to a couple of restaurants before their prolonged absence.
As many firms are revaluating working environments, flexible working policies and benefits packages to ensure they’re relevant post-pandemic. What things do you feel make the biggest impact for Women in the workplace?
Policies are a powerful enabler, but more important are culture and management behaviours to ensure that both women and men are and feel equally supported. At Bevan Brittan 41% of our partners are women, and in our last round of promotions, 60% of all promotions at all levels were for female employees. I would say our culture feels quite different as a result: there is a huge emphasis on collaboration and respect for all.
Something which has been hugely helpful to me throughout my career has been mentors who have provided me with support and guidance.
What is the thing you are most looking forward to doing once we’re finally in the ‘new normal’?
It is a long list! Humans need to congregate, whether that be in a church, yoga studio, theatre or pub. I’m really looking forward to seeing friends and colleagues again.