Have you ever felt like you are not doing enough? That you should be a superhuman and try to juggle your career, family life, friends, and still look fit after a morning run while picking up your kids from school? The stellar discussion panel at the Oxford Women in Law event on 3 March 2020 at Travers Smith, London, addressed some of these questions. Most importantly, the experts have shared the key lessons learned and advice for those who are looking for answers.


“You need to make things work to your advantage.” Katheleen Russ


Katheleen Russ, the first-ever female senior partner at Travers Smith, kicked off the session by breaking down her career into two stages: her career leading to partnership and when she became a partner. During the latter part of her speech, she discussed her thoughts on ‘how things will look like’, while still maintaining a successful marriage for 25 years and raising two children. Katheleen admitted she had “no life plan” and there were a series of career choices that she took without due consideration as she progressed through her life. Katheleen emphasised several times that her great male sponsor made a key difference to her career and encouraged her to let the market know that she is the best tax expert out there. Back then, it was “in or out” culture (whether you will become a partner or not) and “you needed to make things work to your advantage”. Katheleen gave examples of building a strong network, handing our agendas so she positioned herself into a leadership position during meetings, or inviting her male colleagues for breakfast rather than dinner (apparently their wives would complain if they were spending a night out with a female partner). When Katheleen became a partner, her goal was also to be there for her kids while outperforming at work. Her team and company create a culture where success is widely defined - not an “in or out” culture -and also introduces flexible working options. Katheleen closed her speech by emphasising the critical role of mentors and role models for people “coming behind us”.


“After six years on parental leave, I felt like my brain was left in cold storage and it was very hard to sit at a desk for the whole day.” Helen Brown


The second and third speakers were Helen Brown and Julia Hemmings, two partners that job share at Baker McKenzie. Helen returned to work after her maternity leave for four days a week and it was something she had to negotiate very hard to do. Some of her colleagues thought she was “working full-time but in four days”. After six years on maternity leave, Helen felt like “her brain was left in cold storage and it was very hard to sit at a desk for the whole day”. The other issue she identified was regaining her confidence and catching up with the regulatory changes and staying abreast of the law. Julia emphasised that “work-life balance is something we all should aim for” and the way forward for her and Helen was a job share. The key areas that made the job share successful were: a detailed handover, clear communication, transparency, and having a good mentor. The handover checklist makes Julia feel very motivated as she is always asking herself: “Have I done enough to handover the job for the rest of the week?” The peak in Helen’s and Julia’s career was a joint partnership application, which resulted in a big success. But you might be wondering, why a job share could be beneficial for your firm? The benefits are retention of senior talent that you would normally lose, fresh energy that is split over two people, two talented brains for the “price of one”, and the checkpoint (handover) makes the work more “efficient” overall. Ready to advertise your first job share? 


“You can do things on your own timetable – on your terms; when you do things slower, it’s not because you are not good enough.” Helen Mountfield QC


Helen Mountfield QC, a well-known barrister at Matrix Chambers and a principal of the Mansfield College at the University of Oxford, comforted everyone with the following statement: “Work-life balance is for everybody, not just for people who have children. […] If you were with your child overnight in a hospital, it’s important to mention it, let people know about it. The world has changed, and you should be able to talk about it!” Helen started at the Bar in 1991 and she is consistently listed in the Legal 500 and Chambers directories in a number of areas, including: Administrative & Public Law; Human Rights and Civil Liberties; Education; Local Government; and Elections and Employment Law. Helen advised the audience to “build a brand as an individual” and think about how you are going to do it all – plan and strategise. “Life is like a mortgage: sometimes you are adding more, sometimes less. You are building your profile as well as you can.” If you decide to go on parental leave, keep your key clients notified, try to attend the regular drinks, and keep your network warm. But always keep in mind: “You can do things on your own timetable – on your terms; when you do things slower, it’s not because you are not good enough.”


“No one will ever care about your career more than you do.” Stephanie Dillon


Stephanie Dillon from Reignite Academy wrapped up the session with her eight practical tips:

  1. Fight for your career and be part of the solution. No one owes you anything in this world – propose solutions and be part of the solution. Try to look at it from the business perspective and see where you can add value.

  2. Plan and be knowledgeable, if you decide to take off the foot from the gas, stay connected – network, stay up to date with the law, and understand the reality of the part-time market.

  3. Keep your network alive – schedule a coffee once a quarter or follow up via email.

  4. Have a ‘balanced approach to balance’ – look at your goals and assess the progress continuously, do not get bogged down with details every day and blame yourself for ‘not achieving this and that’ on a daily basis.

  5. Discuss your career paths with your partner – when will be their turn to ‘step in’? 

  6. Stay abreast of the news and keep yourself updated.

  7. Your career is a marathon, not a sprint – try to be gentle with yourself and stay realistic.

  8. Stephanie closed the inspiring panel talk with the following: No one will ever care about your career more than you do.” The HR department should be asking you: “When are you taking [parental leave] rather than if you are taking it”. 


Would you like to hear more from other inspiring speakers? Then watch our Oxford Women in Law videos here and subscribe to attend the future events here

Moreover, Kate Surala and Sarah Wagner are working on the upcoming book Unleash Today book that encourages and supports ambitious women to reach their full potential by and to challenge narrowly defined expectations of how women should act, behave, and present themselves in the workplace. We aim to help women acquire the recognition they deserve by overcoming societal gender bias and redefining the perception of what it means to be a confident woman. By sharing our experience, we want to facilitate the transition from university to working life and in between jobs. We shed light on the various issues we are still experiencing today and provide our tips for dealing with these challenges by demonstrating the lessons we have learned.


We lead the way, Unleash Today!