What does it mean to be a good lawyer and a good dad?

Richard Collier
Richard CollierNewcastle University

How do men reconcile work and family lives? Richard Collier, Professor of Law at Newcastle University, says there has been a striking silence around one topic in the gender equality discussion – the precise role of men and the relationship between men's lives and gender equality.

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There are signs that things are changing. Following on from the Law Society's Women in Leadership in Law project, the Male Champions for Change: Findings from the Men's Roundtable (PDF) and Male Champions for Change Toolkit, attention is focusing on men's relationship to issues such as unconscious bias, work-life balance and the male-orientation of traditional routes to leadership. This brings fatherhood into the gender equality frame.

Fatherhood has tended to be seen as not exerting the same effect on a career in law as motherhood. Yet research is suggesting men in the law can struggle with the competing devotions of work and family, albeit that they may do so in different ways.

Fatherhood: a missing piece of the jigsaw?

"I heard an interesting comment from a friend who is senior at [firm name], she made a comment about me and my wife, well, she said, on the scale of male friends I have you are towards the top end of being involved, in that you at least know their names..." (laughs) (Partner)

We know very little about men's experiences of caring roles at different stages of their careers in the legal profession; men's struggles around work-life balance, feelings about career progression, identity as a man and how all this can impact on wellbeing and mental health. What happens when we bring men into the frame?

Several themes emerge from the in-depth interviews I did with twenty male lawyer-fathers in large corporate law firms, shedding light on how ideas of being a 'good father' can inform what it means to be both a 'family man' and good lawyer, recently published in the International Journal of Law in Context (2019).

The importance of being a good dad

For all fathers I spoke to it was important to be a good dad… more than anything really (Partner).

There was less agreement as to what this involved. For some it meant "hands-on' parenting", "being there" as much as employment in a large commercial law firm would allow. Others equated good fathering primarily, if not exclusively, with a more traditional male breadwinner model; being a good provider whereby:

"I want my kids to strive to be the best, so I have to be that example... I have to be at work, I have to be away, they have to see that". (Partner)

Changing expectations

All interviewed fathers felt there were growing expectations on fathers to 'be there' for their children; regardless of whether married, co-residential or separated, to be a better kind of dad than many men had been in the past. This was double-edged.

On the one hand, it represented a generational shift of benefit to women, children, men and law firms. Men's changing aspirations as parents could be a "safety-valve" for the otherwise over-worked lawyer; men who might be "sitting in the office every evening always working, you know, emailing at midnight" (Partner).

On the other hand, several felt they "had it harder, really" than previous generations of men who worked in the legal profession at a time when there were more opportunities to have both "dad's time" and a professional career. Stigma, it was felt, can still attach to requests from women and men to work flexibility.

Being there and 'making it work'

The successful father-lawyer could, if he so chose, reconcile the competing demands of work and family; "if you want to make something work you can make it work" (Partner) . In marked contrast to depictions of motherhood as somehow naturally given (in a way that fatherhood is not), it was acknowledged that fatherhood often still did not exert the same effect on a career in the law as motherhood.

Several interviewed lawyers were aware that their ability to work long hours depended on the care work and emotional labour of others, particularly women, whether partners, family members or paid help like nannies.

What does it mean to be a good dad

What is interesting is how certain activities then assumed considerable significance in shaping what it meant to be a 'good dad'. It was seen as a common arrangement amongst residential fathers with younger children in large law firms for contact to occur, where possible, at one end of the day (the 'good night kiss'):

"The reality is I see my children in the morning, and that's that. I don't see them in the evening… Yes, my wife gets annoyed about it, but it doesn't affect the children" (Partner)

Though for short periods, reading bedtime stories, attending bath times and having breakfasts (with weekends 'family time' to such a degree as work allowed), were key practices in marking an identity as a 'hands on' father. This chimes with the idea that there is more to contemporary fatherhood than simply providing; the good father embraces both a traditional breadwinner and caring/new father ideal.

Fathers at work and home

What it meant to be the "kind of man, the man I want to be" could vary across work and home.

One Partner described his shift from being an "aggressive and assertive" lawyer at work to the "quite sensitive, caring" father at home. New technologies and remote/agile working were changing the experience of fathers in contradictory ways; simultaneously freeing up time to be with children whilst, paradoxically, blurring a meaningful division between home and work. The 24-hour support and in-house facilities designed into many large law firm offices were themselves seen as part of the 'doing' of family life in this area of law.  

The package deal: the trade-offs

For all interviewed lawyers the potential financial rewards of a career in a large law firm were associated with a lifestyle and status as an elite global lawyer. This enabled the consumption of high-end commodities and sense of being 'successful' as both a man and father, for example via the provision of private education and expensive holidays.

This lifestyle came at the cost or trade-off of long hours worked and the high level of commitment called for; the "package deal" a successful lawyer in this area of practice would inevitably have to make. Tensions could then arise, summed up evocatively by a female Human Resources Manager:

"I once had a Partner say to me, he's worked so hard he's missed his two boys grow up… but then again he now has his posh cars and his big house so, well, I guess that's fine."

Prompts for reflection

Importantly, commitment could vary at different stages of career as a trainee, Associate or for some, in the run up to Partnership in ways that impacted on identity as a father. The decision to reassess this lifestyle was seen as occurring at certain moments in life for men; not, for the fathers in this study, at the point of their first becoming a father but either when their children had left home or, recognising the high rates of separation and divorce in the profession, in the context of establishing second families and re-partnering.

Having children in later life, experiencing personal or family physical or psychological ill-health, uncertainties around promotion to Partnership, bereavement and separation were referred to as common "prompts for reflection" (Partner) for many men in law firms.

Why does this matter?

Men in the workplace navigating the boundaries between traditional ideas of masculinity (boys don't cry) and more emotionally expressive ways of being a man appear caught between conflicting beliefs about men and gender. There is reason to think fathers in the contemporary legal profession also need to recognise the potential impact parenthood can have on a demanding career; and that what is required are organisational solutions that make both women and men feel more able to 'make it work.'

 

Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.

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