Queen of the City: Burning the Career Candle at Both Ends

Early Morning View of Big BenI am so sorry. Big Kiss.  My love to you and the girls.  Hold them close.” Catherine Bailey’s tragic last words to her husband just before the successful City lawyer and mother of three daughters drowned herself in the Thames earlier this year. 


The resulting heartbreak for her young family, and consternation and sadness among colleagues at her law firm has been widely covered in the UK press.  


Ms. Bailey was a partner dealing with banking and regulatory disputes, including Financial Services Authority investigations. The current economic crisis put her skills as a financial litigator to the forefront with a significantly increased workload.  Returning to work six months after the birth of her third daughter into an environment where partners regularly worked 60+ hours a week, Ms. Bailey would probably also have had to take home work in the evenings and over weekends to keep up.


The pressure on partners to perform in the current difficult climate is not confined to SJ Berwin, where Ms Bailey’s worked, having made partner in 2003.  The law firm has seen revenues slump by nearly 15%, with partner profits down by a massive 49%.  In an effort to cut costs the firm made 40 junior lawyers redundant. Straitened times will have been tough on everyone working there. 


As reported in The Times, Alison Thompson, the coroner, told the court: “Ms Bailey was a very capable and professional woman and a loving mother of three young children who found it hard to meet the demands of motherhood and the high standard she had set herself.”  


As a mother myself, I can’t imagine the despair that led this successful, devoted mother to kill herself in the chill waters of the Thames rather than carry on with a life that had become unbearable to her. 


While no blame attaches to her colleagues at work, it is symbolic of a professional culture that Catherine Bailey had to conceal her growing panic from her loved ones and peers in the work place.  Not coping is not an option in today’s high-pressure environment, and in Britain, particularly, admitting to having problems balancing life and work is severely hampered by an unfortunate tradition of ‘keeping a stiff upper lip’, severely restricting the options for those struggling to keep it all together. 


It isn’t uncommon for many women in the legal and banking profession to overcompensate for perceived weaknesses by working longer and harder than their male counterparts.  Combining this with the incessant demands of a very young family has seen many a senior woman weeping in the dark, despairing of ever ‘having it all’ without  having to ‘do it all’ at the same time. 


It doesn’t help that in order to be a success in any profession, generally speaking you have to be a Type A personality – driven, ambitious, intelligent and a perfectionist.  Mixing that with the primal demands of early motherhood and its utter lack of order and routine is a toxic cocktail.   


So, what to do about it?  Having seen many young women transform from idealistic professionals to exhausted cynics in my time, I can only recommend talking remedies:

  • Get your support system up and running before you enter the Parent Trap.  You need your friends – of either gender – to remind you of a time when you were perceived as a bright human being, not just a 24-hour zombie with a milk supply;
  • Don’t expect to work the same way after you have children as you did before.  I’ve said it before in this column, and I’ll doubtless have to say it again, but you will work smarter for having had to learn to cram everything into the tiny window that children allow you in the early years.  The long-hours culture at some law firms takes no account of this whatsoever, and it needs to do so;
  • Accept you are not Superwoman, just a pretty good facsimile of her;
  • Don’t be shy about accepting help from whatever quadrant it’s offered, and, even more important:
  • Don’t shrink from asking for it.  It isn’t an admission of failure, it’s an acceptance of reality. Any halfway decent manager or partner will see that, and respect you for it. 

Finally, for those women fearing professional burnout, it’s important to remember that however horrible your current circumstances, they are of finite duration:  ‘This Too Shall Pass.’  It’s served me well over some turbulent years.