Balancing a Successful Career and Family

Helen Hagan speaks about balancing a successful career and family, her non-negotiables and the importance of focusing on priorities during maternity leave.

spotlight series header helen hagan

I joined the London banking group as a partner at Simmons & Simmons in February 2017, where I specialise in real estate finance. I am currently on a six month secondment with Goldman Sachs.

I trained at Herbert Smith Freehills with whom I had the opportunity to work in Hong Kong, Amsterdam and Moscow and also spent time on secondment with Lehman Brothers and Blackstone. Working overseas and directly with clients was important to me so I chose a firm that would provide me with the opportunity to do so. I think I was approached for these opportunities because of my positive attitude: I’m adaptable, personable and willing to get stuck in to build relationships.

A balancing act

I am proud of having been made partner while creating and maintaining a happy family environment for my two year old son, Alex. My husband’s a teacher and so we both juggle work commitments and childcare; one of us will drop Alex off at his childminder’s in the morning and the other will pick him up at the end of the day

Transactional work is fast paced and in my view is hard to do part time. I try to work from home one day a week to help with the sense of balance.

“I’m also very strict about prioritising time with close friends and family and creating some “non-negotiables.”

I am very strict about prioritising time with close friends and family and creating some “non-negotiables”, such as never working weekend mornings, which is precious time with my little one; for me, it’s worth working late on Friday nights to secure the valuable weekend time with my family.

Balancing my personal life with my professional one has not always been easy. Working in the transactional space is incredibly demanding. I’ve developed a thick skin and try to maintain a positive outlook even when transaction parties are being difficult. My strong work ethic, perseverance and determination have enabled me to see tasks through to completion while making sure there’s time for family at the end of the day.

“There needs to be a cultural shift away from assuming if you want to make partner you have to do it in the shortest time possible.”

Keeping in touch

Managing my maternity leave was naturally another challenge. I loved my time at home with Alex but was ready to return to work when the time came. When I did return I felt side-lined; that was difficult but ultimately spurred me on tofocus on my business case for becoming a partner. To other female lawyers going on maternity leave: I would encourage you to spend time beforehand thinking about what you want to do when you come back and consider how you will progress to the next level. I perhaps didn’t give that enough thought until afterwards. I would encourage female colleagues to make the most of maternity leave: of course you need to focus on your baby and your family, but Keep in Touch (KIT) days can be incredibly useful and you should think about using them to help you stay involved and engaged with your team and your clients. With hindsight, I could have put mine to better use from a BD perspective by attending events and meetings with important contacts.

The need for change

Maternity leave aside, there are other things that need to be addressed to improve female progression within the legal sector. There needs to be a cultural shift away from assuming if you want to make partner you have to do it in the shortest time possible - our working lives are long and the best lawyers are not necessarily those who were promoted first. The industry also needs to actively sponsor and encourage junior to mid-level female associates and create more flexible career options to make it possible to focus on different priorities at different stages in life. Private practice is seen by many as a stepping stone to an in-house role; we need to face up to that and challenge the perception that law firms are less flexible or less sustainable environments. From my perspective, moving up through the levels in private practice has been a hugely enjoyable, varied and interesting experience so far – I am grateful for being made to feel so welcome at Simmons & Simmons and looking forward to the challenges ahead.

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