The Parent Cloud Podcast – Speaking with Chris Bryant, Partner at BCLP about the challenges of working and parenting

How does part-time working, shared parental leave and striving for an ambitious career affect dads and what advice could a dad whose done it give everyone else?

In this extract from a podcast, Parent Cloud founder, Karen Taylor, speaking with Chris Bryant, Partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, discusses working part-time within a law firm, the benefits to businesses of embracing family friendly policies, making flexible working requests and some tips on how to make working and parenting work for you. To listen to the podcast in full click here

Karen: Welcome to the Parent Cloud podcast. The podcast for working parents and inclusive HR teams. I’m Karen Taylor, the founder of Parent Cloud and I’m joined today by Chris Bryant who is a partner at law firm, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner.

Chris: I’m a lawyer, I’ve been with Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner for 14 years and I’ve been a partner for six years now, but for the last almost three years, I’ve been working part-time doing three days a week and looking after my children. And so I split my time between dealing with big investigations and litigation and helping companies to work their way through Brexit and all those things. And then helping little people to build plastic towers and things like that.

Karen: When it came to you deciding to start to work part-time, how did that come about?

Chris: So I first actually started to work part time before having children. I started working a nine day fortnight first of all and then when my partner and I made the decision to try to have children. We talked about how it would work between us in terms of both of our careers and how we would manage that with bringing up the children and what we would do and we decided that actually the best thing would be for us both to work part time. And we decided that I could probably work it so that I could do a three day week and my partner could do a four day week.

Karen: And when it came to making that request to work part-time, how did you find that?

Chris: It took me quite a while to get to a stage in my career where I felt comfortable enough to make the request. Partly where I was kind of senior enough and I thought that my capital in the firm was sufficient that I can ask for these things now and I can start to actually have a bit more influence over my own working patterns. But nonetheless, it was still a pretty big step.

I went through and prepared this really long, detailed list of all my arguments as to why it was a good idea for the firm as well as for me, and then I didn’t need to use a single one of them because the answer straight away was, yeah, that sounds like a good idea. And the firm really responded positively, they were kind of really glad to have someone in my position, particularly as a male partner, to have a role model. They asked, “What do you need from us to help make this work and let’s just sit down in three months and then six months and review it and see what changes, if any, we need to make”. And so actually the reaction was really positive.

I would still say to anyone looking to do it to make that list and to come up with all your arguments in case you need them, and present your arguments very much in terms of what the benefits are for your employer, as much as for you, because there will be benefits for your employer, whoever your employer is and whatever you do.

I found that after just a few weeks, my part-time working pattern really didn’t work and that being out for four days (Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday) didn’t work with all the things that needed to be turned around quickly. So I changed the days and went to a pattern of being out on Mondays and Wednesdays so that I was never out for more than one day at a time or three days for the weekend, and once I changed that it was so much more manageable. It’s finding a pattern that works for you. For me, it wasn’t what I originally thought; it would be great having a four day weekend but that was more stressful than trying to do it differently.

Karen: And so how has that worked practically when it comes to how you’re linking in with your clients?

Chris: Even aside from part-time working arrangements, there will be times quite often where I’m either in court or I’m in a meeting that I can’t get out of, or I’m on a transatlantic flight or something like that when clients can’t get hold of me. And that’s never a problem because the arrangements are in place that if it is absolutely urgent they can speak to somebody else. Usually it’s not so urgent that they can’t wait for me to come out of court or out of the meeting. And then I speak to them later on that day, or later in the evening.

But if I’m in soft play or a toddler music class or something like that, then basically that’s no different from me being on calls or in an in an all-day meeting where if a client needs to get hold of me and then they can’t (because I’m in soft play, etc) I deal with it afterwards. So the way I tend to work is that on my non-working days I’m not completely out of contact so if there’s something urgent, I will be on the phone and I will help them to deal with it.

I ring fence particular blocks of time, normally when the children are awake and during those times, I treat that as though I’m in court or in a meeting. Then during nap times and after they’ve gone to bed in the evenings that’s when I can catch up and deal with things. And for me that works because I’ve blocked out the time.

Karen: But it’s also a really cultural thing, isn’t it? How are your company if there are other parents who need to go to their child’s nativity at Christmas, for example?

Chris: Generally speaking, my firm has a good culture of that kind of thing where you’re treated like grown-ups. Even if you work full time, if you need to take a little time out to go to a sports day to go to a nativity play, you are treated like a grown up to manage that and make that work and still get the job done, which 99% of people will do. I think if that culture hadn’t been there it would have been more difficult for me to request part-time working.

Karen: If you were giving advice to others as to how to really make that case about the business benefit of working part-time, what would you say?

Chris: I think the number one benefit for businesses, certainly like ours, is around retention of talent. By someone like me working part-time, it puts that message out there that actually you can do this. There will be people who are coming through the organisation who the firm would otherwise not keep, who would stay and the firm gets the benefit of talented people who they’ve invested in over many years in a lot of cases. And it doesn’t take a genius to work out that’s pretty sound business sense. And from a broad cultural sense, it just makes it a better place to work and you’ve got happier more productive people.

Karen: It is really challenging for working couples where you have those days when one of your children are ill and you have those debates about whose day is more important. Do you  have any hints and tips to make that work?

Chris: It takes a lot of communication as to what you have in terms of your immediate pressures for both of you and what the diaries are looking like so that we can juggle it. We don’t have the benefit of grandparents living locally, for both of us they need to travel from afar. But we do kind of look at what we’ve got coming up and where we see pinch points we’re able to get the one set or another to come down and stay for a few days and help out when we’re really pressed. But for the day to day pressures, it’s a question of just adapting as much as possible and communicating so that we know where we stand. And it takes a bit of give and take as well, it can’t be one-sided otherwise it quickly falls down.

Through my work, we’ve got access to emergency childcare cover where they give us so many days a year and where you’re able to phone up in that panic and have someone come and help. That has been an amazing resource to have. And if any employers are just looking for one thing to do to help, that’s something I know has made a huge difference to us, and made a huge difference to a number of my colleagues here. And so otherwise we manage just through constant communication. But I’m not going to pretend for a minute that it’s easy and straightforward because it’s not, but you can make it work.

Karen: And if we we’re thinking more about how businesses can support their working parents. So, you know, you touched on emergency childcare there. Do you think there are other ways that they can be doing this?

Chris: Yes. Just flexibility where possible is the big picture. Just treating people/parents as adults and generally trusting that they will make it work and allowing people to try things. So, you know, not everything’s going to work out but if you’re too cautious then you’ll end up damaging yourself by being too cautious. If you are willing to actually allow people to come up with suggestions and try what works for them, then I think that’s the other thing that employers can be doing. And let people come to you with solutions rather than be too rigid about it as well.

Karen: I think some people who work part-time have really struggled to feel like they could push their career forward. Have you found that? Or have you had any career coaching or anything to try and keep your career on track?

Chris: One of the things that someone said to me before I went part time – it was someone who’s quite senior in the firm who works on flexible arrangement herself – and she said to me, don’t get in the headspace where you make yourself think right, that’s it, I’m stalled. You know, you’re working part time, but you’re still contributing the value that you were contributing beforehand. So you still push yourself and I have been encouraged to do so. I’ve never been held back.

Karen: How have you managed to cope with the double pressure of working and managing a family and just making sure you keep yourself mentally healthy and in the right headspace?

Chris: It’s not easy. Talking to each other about pressures that we’re feeling, etc, that’s hugely important because within a couple we need to know how we’re each feeling. For us, we found also reining in a little bit of the ambition in terms of things we’re going to do. So at a weekend, a trip to the park is an activity, you don’t need to do the park and this and that, which we were kind of a bit disposed to doing, where we would pack as much in as we possibly could. And actually just being a bit more realistic about what you can achieve; just not putting pressure on yourselves to achieve things that really don’t matter that much. Take the pressure off yourself when you can and make life easier for yourself.

Karen: When dads go back to work and often you may have only had like two weeks off and suddenly you are back at work and are probably immensely sleep deprived and maybe expected to operate like nothing’s changed. How did you find that transition and how did you cope at that point?

Chris: It’s really, really tough. I think. for me, I have been helped by the fact that around me are lots of people who’ve been in that position relatively recently who completely empathise whenever any of us are there. We kind of all recognise that and we’ll all help each other and support each other informally, not everything’s structured. You’ve got to just survive each day and let people know and hopefully most people will be human and will understand. You’ve just got to do it, if you don’t tell people they won’t know.

People who’ve been through it relatively recently kind of understand, whereas I think if you go back a generation or two to where, particularly for the dads, you kind of went in the spare room and got on with it and actually what are you talking about being interrupted, you just need to get yourself in the spare room. And it doesn’t quite work like that for most people now. I work with a lot of people who I would say are a similar generation who do think in the same way and understand those pressures.

Karen: We were talking about you going back to work after your initial two weeks’ paternity leave, but then I know you did shared parental leave, which is fantastic. And so at the end of that, when you were coming back and you’d had a chunk of time out, how did you find it?

Chris: Certainly first kind of adjusting to being a parent was a big thing, but it was coming back from paternity leave and thinking right, I’m going to be out of the office for another 2 months, I’ve got to actually hand this over, was hard. I remember the number of people who were just kind of like, oh, I’ve not seen you in ages, where have you been. And then people not actually aware because obviously before we (men) go out on maternity leave, there aren’t any visible signs about what we’re going to be doing relatively soon!

Whereas if you’re doing shared parental leave, people don’t necessarily know that unless they’re working with you day in, day out. But I think in terms of shared parental leave, I’ve found and everyone I’ve spoken to who has done it either here or elsewhere, absolutely loved the experience of doing it, it’s such a good thing to do and you’ll never get that time again. I did it for my first child, I’m going to be doing it again next year for our second child. And it’s just such a really, really good thing to do, and for employers to make it as easy as possible.

Karen: When you read statistics about dads taking employers up on the offer of shared parental leave, I think the numbers aren’t anywhere near where people would like it to be. And I might be wrong, but I don’t think we’re seeing a massive shift?

Chris: We’re not, although based on anecdotal conversations I’ve had with a lot of dads, actually very, very often the reason for that is financial because not all employers offer the same terms for shared parental leave as they do for maternity leave. So often it’s just the basic minimum that you get for shared parental leave, so I know a fair few people who wanted to do it and just financially, they’re not able to take that hit.

Those I know who have done it, pretty much everybody I can think of, their employers have offered similar terms to maternity leave, so either full pay for a period of time or something that’s financially viable. But I think that’s the main reason, certainly from an anecdotal basis as to why there hasn’t been the uptake that we might have expected to see. I don’t think it’s down to any lack of demand to do it and I think it would be wholly wrong to  portray it that way, although I’m very well aware that lots of people have portrayed it that way.  I go to a few dad’s groups and things, so I encounter people who have done it and invariably, if they’re able to do it, they do it.


Karen: And so if you were talking with HR teams, or businesses that don’t offer that kind of incentive to help dads to take shared parental leave, what are the benefits? I’m sure you’re probably going to say a lot of the similar ones around flexible working?

Chris: Yes, but also as an HR team you’re looking to address any gender imbalance. The more of an uptake of shared parental leave you have in an organisation, the more you’re going to achieve a situation where women don’t feel that they are going to be penalised for becoming mothers, for going on maternity leave, etc. Because if it is neutral and men are doing it as well as women, then actually you take that away and it’s not seen as parenting being a women’s issue. And, you know, we’re not going back to that kind of 1950s stereotype. That’s got to be the biggest advantage for employers, just that you can show – to all your existing staff and future recruits – that you are looking to eliminate as much of the imbalance as possible.

You’re not going to achieve that balance until it becomes the norm that when you become a parent you’re going to take some time out, not when you become a mother that you’re going to take some time out. Then you’re going to see a kind of a shift in people’s mental health space. And I think that’s the biggest benefit. I forget what the national average uptake of shared parental leave is, something like 2% uptake, and yet here at my firm we’ve had, I don’t know the exact figures, but it’s something like 51, 52% uptake.  The more visibility there is of people doing it, the more others feel empowered to do it, they don’t feel shy about requesting it, but also because you don’t get that financial hit from doing so, people feel able to do it.

Karen: So, Chris, thank you so much for joining me. It’s been really interesting hearing about you and how you make flexible working work. If you had any tips for any dads thinking about making a flexible working request or thinking about taking shared parental leave, is there any advice you can give that you think would help them?

Chris: The main advice I would give is to say is that, for a lot of careers, you can do it. And it may not seem immediately obvious that you can, but if you want to, if there’s a will there’s very often a way. It won’t be straightforward. Do not expect it to be straightforward. Do not expect that whatever solution you come up with first of all will work first time. I was convinced of that with the (part-time) pattern I originally thought would work brilliantly, and within weeks that was ditched and we were doing something else. But just be prepared to adapt. Communication is key! It’s a bit cliched and everyone says that in all walks of life but it’s absolutely true. You’ll make life far easier for yourself just by  communicating, communicating, communicating. I’d also say just go for it. If you want to do it, what’s the worst that could happen? Just try.