Flexible Working & Career Breaks: A Personal Perspective

In advance of IP Inclusive’s Women in IP Flexible Working & Career Breaks Event, this post sets out some of the things I learnt taking a career break (shared parent leave) and working part-time. I hope it may be useful for others considering “off piste” career options.

For context, I have stuck my route through this whole thing at the bottom. Although I come at it from the point of view of a patent attorney, many points apply to other roles within the intellectual property (IP) profession, including paralegals, searchers, examiners, “back-office” roles, and IP solicitors.

Another disclaimer: these are my own views and not necessarily those of my employers present or past. You may also disagree; I am open to (polite!) discussion in the comments below.

As everyone likes “listicles” (or so say the £300/hour marketing consultants), I have decomposed my experience into ten key points:

  1. There is no “official” path
  2. You are lucky
  3. Switch your view
  4. You have a choice, but you can’t have it all
  5. Time = Money = Career
  6. The Patriarchy is accidental
  7. Two is better than one
  8. There is life outside of London
  9. Remote working works
  10. Imperfect Balance

Intrigued? Let’s have a look.

There is no “official” path

gray pathway surrounded by green tress
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When I first entered the world of intellectual property there seemed to be a well-defined structure: start in a junior role, put in the hours, work your way up to a senior role and a larger salary, work for another 20 years, get a gold clock and hope you have a defined benefit pension scheme.

This world is changing. Maybe it didn’t really exist at all. Assumptions are being called into question. The opening up of the workplace to a wider variety of backgrounds, together with general societal trends, means that people are taking a different, more realistic, and in many ways healthier, approach to work and careers.

Work for long enough and you too may see the cracks in the traditional narrative. Staff leave and join. Things you assumed were part of a “life path”, like housing or good health may no longer be available. Over the water-cooler or a networking pint, you hear whispers of others “doing something different”. You see people get lucky and unlucky rolls of the dice. You begin to learn that there are other possibilities, and that the hardest part is often imagining them.

The Internet and social media is a great help with this. You can see people move around on LinkedIn, post about their experiences on blogs such as this, or comment on Twitter.

Start with honesty. If things don’t seem to be working, try to work out why and don’t assume that there is a set structure or path you need to follow. Reach out to others in your employment, or via social media, to see what other routes there may be. Don’t be afraid to chat things through informally with your employer, line manager or a member of human resources; in my experience any fear I had was misplaced and people genuinely want to find something that works for everyone.

You are lucky

green club flower
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If you are working in the world of IP, you are lucky. This applies regardless of your role.

Don’t believe me? If you work in private practice, you can look up the accounts of patent and law firms for free at Companies House. You will see that these businesses do not operate with food-production or milk-farmer level margins. Technology companies also tend to be better placed in the economy than other sectors, such as retail. Yes there are worse years and better years, but look at annual profits or average partner remuneration (spoiler: private practice averages are somewhere between £200k and £500k). The patent profession is “effectively a legal cartel” (quoting Sir Colin Birss).

This means that there is more monetary slack in the system than there may be in other industries. The skills of all roles are in high demand. This put employees in a good negotiating position. Firms and companies need to retain trained staff, and most firms and companies are always looking for more staff. Use this to your advantage. You have the margin to be brave in your choices.

Switch your view

ball ball shaped blur daylight
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That being said, businesses need to be run, and they need to make a profit. I’ve been on both sides of the managerial chair. If you want to branch out beyond the normal 9-5 employment contracts, your options also need to make managerial and financial sense for those you are working for. In an ideal world, it would be nice to live an idle life on  law firm partner pay. But we can’t all be Jacob Rees-Mogg.

A good place to start is to work out your cost to your employer or to those using your services. Think about how your employer affords your salary or pay. In private practice, income comes from invoicing clients. In industry, a department may have an annual budget, revenue targets and key performance indicators. Remember that you often cost more than the money you receive in your paycheck. There is tax, national insurance, employee benefits, office costs, training costs, pension costs, etc. etc.

Then think about how your activities fit into the value chain. Docketing or paralegal cost may be charged as a “service fee” or have a budgeted amount per case. How much of your effort is required per work type? How much do you need to be paid to cover your personal expenses? How many hours do you have available per day? What seems like a endless series of choices can be whittled down to a practical proposal.

For employers, “flexible working” and “career breaks” have often been viewed with distrust. It was thought that employees could not be trusted, that flexible workers were too “difficult” to manage, or that the bottom line would fall. None of this has really come to pass. Indeed, the more astute employers are realising that in a field where there is a large demand for skills, offering flexibility can be a great selling point. Work/life balance was recently voted the most important concern for attorneys, above salary. Turns out wealth isn’t everything, who would have guessed? Beyond recruitment, a flexible workforce can also benefit the bottom line, helping get the day jobs done and freeing up in-house attorney time. The legal market is stretching vertically and approaches traditionally applied by counsel in industry to manage outside counsel are now being applied by law firms to manage virtual teams.

You have a choice, but you can’t have it all

woman eating cupcake while standing near pink background inside room
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In my experience, running one or more households and caring for one or more human beings is a full-time job. Trying to wish otherwise is unrealistic. The choice comes in the form of the person (or persons) doing this job. It could be:

  • one person full-time without pay (e.g. the traditional “houseperson” or grandparent);
  • two people part-time without pay (e.g. two freelancers or a “second job” + grandparent or sibling);
  • one person full-time with pay (e.g. a childminder or full-time carer); or
  • one person doing this part-time without pay and one person doing this part-time with pay (e.g. the also semi-traditional “second job” + “help”).

The person could be a parent, a child, a family member, or a friend.

For some the choice may not be much of a choice. Each person has a different set of circumstances. Some options may be easier than others. Many options may only be options if something is given-up or bartered. Having your cake and eating it is like a free-lunch, you are paying somewhere, it just may not be obvious at first sight. These may not be as intuitive as you think they are.

What you can’t try to wish out of existence is the caring role itself. I like to view carer roles like physicists view dark matter – just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they are not there. It is a cliché (but true) that for every person with external responsibilities working 12-hour days there are others that we do not see working hard, and we may never directly see this effort. It seems tragic that it is only recently we are being to talk about how these roles are divided, and realising that a majority of the population may have an opinion on the matter that differs from our expectations.

Time = Money = Career

gray wooden coin box with green leaf plant on gray sand
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Once you have set out the demands of your external responsibilities, your job responsibilities and your expenses, you can start to map the options available to all parties in a household.

Three levers you can vary are: time, money and career. These are interconnected. You can have more time, but this may come at a literal cost to your wallet and a figurative cost to your career (or at least a certain image of your career). You can have higher pay, but you may have less time.

You may have more control over these than you think. Most people think of money and career as a one-way street (for the patent attorneys: “a monotonically increasing function“). Looking at the hours many senior staff put in, as you rise in your role, your “free” time also diminishes. Many of us know senior partners in law firms or department managers that are checking their emails while on holiday or in the evenings. This email time is time that is not available for a role caring for other human beings, or doing household chores, or taking up a hobby, or volunteering in a local group. Time is a fixed quantity. Remember the cost is not always visible.

In negotiations for flexible working do not be afraid to trade salary for time. If you have fewer hours available per week, e.g. because you have to care for a child or relative, this will mean you can work fewer hours per week. However, make sure that you are not being paid less for the same work. Look at the value your work provides your employer – for a paralegal this may be charged out directly, for an IT support role this may be indirectly charged out as patent attorney or paralegal time (if the computers stopped working no one could charge anything). This may be harder for roles in industry than for private practice, but you may find a costing for IP in an annual review or a licensing income you can use to justify your value. You may feel a bit besmirched putting everything in monetary terms but remember this is not your value, it is just a representation of your value for dealing with an entity whose purpose is monetary (to make a profit). You can increase your chances of success by playing the game. You can also play around with the figures, and mock up different scenarios.

The Patriarchy is accidental

grayscale photo of four men sitting on bench along the street
Photo by Jan Kroon on Pexels.com

In private practice, most law firms have a heavily male partnership. Roles in industry are better, and it is good to see Women in IP highlighting senior female figures in IP, but there is still a male skew (evidence: attendees at CIPA Congress 2018). There is also a female skew to paralegal roles. Some believe this is driven by unintelligent design; I’m more of the opinion this is a historical accident that is open to change.

Now I’m not going to take on what is a huge issue, and walk briskly into a minefield. But I can just about see how a heavy-male skew in senior patent attorney roles can arise. First there is a bias towards men working in science and engineering (one I’m trying to reverse with my parental nudging to my daughters). Second to enter partnership in private practice you need to work hard and have excellent billing figures. The time many enter partnership also overlaps with the time that many start a family (30-40s), or if you have older parents, manage their ageing. Even at the most progressive patent firms, partnership and a 3-day week is generally not an option. To be fair, it is difficult (impossible?) to provide full 24-hour service to demanding clients and provide full 24-hour service to demanding children. Cultural bias, breastfeeding, self-affirming networks, the need to physically recover after birth, and the need to pay the bills all conspire to nudge the pinball of life towards traditional male-female caregiver roles. Now just because something is, doesn’t mean it should be. A first step is awareness; a second step is change. I receive many a confused look from men when I ask them whether they are willing to give up their own career development for a time to allow their partner to rise up through the ranks. Normally this is excused on monetary terms: we couldn’t afford it. Forgive my scepticism, but in the patent world this can come from people earning six-figure salaries. The average UK full-time salary is below £30,000 (gross).

Once you see the random trail of the pinball you can take more control over its direction. As a business owner or employer you can make the playground equal to allow both men and women to take time off. You can change how work is performed to make it easier to distribute work in a piece-meal fashion, facilitating flexible working. Men can realise that they may need to adjust their perceived route through life, that there are other paths. We can all switch off our phones at 5:30pm.

Two is better than one

photography of two clowns in the street
Photo by Mikey Dabro on Pexels.com

In you live in a two-parent household, we found that having two people work part-time or flexible roles is better than the traditional breadwinner / houseperson split. In purely financial terms, in the UK, you can be 15-20% better off with this arrangement, based on tax rates and penalties regarding child benefit and childcare.

Having two people work part-time can also allow a career to be pursued to a lesser extent by both parties, rather than requiring the traditional sacrifice from one half of the household. This has benefits outside of pure employment. For example, the experiences of both parties are closer, which reduces resentment and facilitates understanding.

For the partner used to working long office hours, there are benefits to stepping off the pedal and taking on more of the unpaid household tasks. Dropping the kids off at school or childcare allows you to become involved in your local community, and move out of a workplace or professional bubble. It is very easy to get caught up in a world of work, but such a world is fairly brittle. If the unexpected or unwelcome hit, they often hit hard. Working flexibly or part-time allows you to build up social capital that can make you more resilient.

Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative nurse, noted that one of the top regrets of dying male patients was “I wish I hadn’t worked as hard”.

There is life outside of London

herd of white and black cows on grass field
Photo by Lukas Hartmann on Pexels.com

*A collective gasp is heard along Chancery Lane*

Live in or around London and London often seems like life. It is not. There are IP roles outside of London. Not all large businesses have their headquarters in London. There are private practice offices in most UK university towns.

Living outside of London could half your housing and living costs, with a smaller proportional drop in salary. You could move somewhere where you can walk or cycle to work. Work outside of London and you can avoid commutes that clock up as an hour each way with what seems like the entire population of Denmark. Yes, there is less culture, fewer venues, galleries and restaurants, but have three kids and you rather quickly end up going to bed at 9pm and a walk to the shops resembles a military exercise. You are also not confronted with raging inequality that takes mental effort to filter out and rationalise everyday.

Remote working works

grayscale photo of computer laptop near white notebook and ceramic mug on table
Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

When I started in the profession we were only just beginning to receive instructions by email. This was seen as “something not quite right”. Post (or perhaps facsimile transmission) was “how things were done”. People shuffled between patent firms and the London post branch of the UK Patent Office with brown-wrapped parcels. Work literally piled up in front of you.

In over a decade much of this has changed. Working can often feel like the film Inception as I dive into virtual machines within virtual networks within virtual machines. You can file a patent application from anywhere in the world. You can receive all communications electronically. Online file and docketing systems manage files and due dates in the cloud. Everyone loves Microsoft Word (okay that one isn’t great).

One of the panel at the Women in IP event, and an ex-colleague, spent a year working as a patent attorney while circumventing the globe. I know of patent attorneys who work for UK firms that do not live in the UK.

As a slight caveat, I am relatively IT-savvy.  But I was surprised at the ease with which I could work outside of the office on a laptop or computer. All you need is good WiFi. Do not be afraid.

Imperfect Balance

orange cube
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Life often seems to me like a Necker Cube. Look at it one way and you are a total failure,  miserably falling short of your true potential. Flip your frame of reference and you are a wild success, much better off than most of humanity, alive or dead. Both may be true. No one can know for sure.

You have to be realistic. I spend much more time with my kids that many dads. But this doesn’t mean we live in Von Trappian bliss. If anything I probably get cross at my kids more than the average bedtime or weekend dad. Much of my day can pass in domestic drudgery (washing, dishes, shopping, cooking, ferrying; then repeat). But I feel richer than a Partner in a London law firm.

Human beings have known for over two and a half millennia that truth and success lie in a middle way. But this is hard because our desires, inclinations and habits pull us to the poles. You need to exert effort to stay balanced. Like riding a bike. Knowing how to do this takes years and is a skill you acquire. It doesn’t arrive by magic.

Working flexibly, taking a career break or changing your career may need you to give up certain things. But you can gain other things that can provide a path of fulfilment that may not be visible in life’s melee.

My Route

Photo 20-09-2018, 17 03 15
Note: Mess and the CIPA Journal

I started off my career on the well-trodden patent attorney path. In my last year of university I sent off my letters to most of the patent firms in the Inside Careers guide, and ended up being lucky enough to be accepted for a training place at Gill Jennings & Every (GJE). Things went pretty smoothly for the first few years: I had success on the QMW Diploma course and the European Qualifying Examinations, and was progressing nicely within the firm. I got married and we were looking at buying somewhere to live in Wood Green. Then life, as it does, threw a few curve balls.

First, the “Great Recession” hit. Suddenly work started to dry up, and recruitment froze. It didn’t feel like a huge event at the time, but in hindsight it was clear that a general feeling of uncertainty and chaos hung around. Second, a close friend tragically died. She was a high-flying trainee lawyer. Although officially unrelated, I couldn’t help feel that the all-night working sessions and London lawyer lifestyle were somehow implicated. Third, my first daughter was born. There were complications with the birth, which shall we say “didn’t go well”, and she ended up in Intensive Care for a couple of weeks with possible brain damage. Luckily she appears fine now, 8 or 9 years later, but at the time we didn’t know whether there were going to be learning difficulties or other problems growing up.

This led us to look to leave London and to move closer to my (relatively large) family that lived in central Somerset. Bristol and Bath both had patent attorney firms and I sent the feelers out amongst the recruitment consultants. I ended up at EIP in Bath. We lived between family in Somerset and a family friend’s flat in Bath until we were lucky enough to find a small terraced house in Bath (any spelling mistakes are due to the lead paint and asbestos tiles I removed – we’re still there now).

Relatively quickly I was back on the career track, although now one slightly askew from the London mainline. My second daughter came along and I was eyeing up partnership in the distance along the classic lines. We tried to juggle parenting as best we could but ended up falling back onto rather typical binary roles (me at work until 6-7pm many nights, the other half being the default for the kids). Just after the birth of my second daughter, my father-in-law died suddenly, which shook us up a bit. My partner had a relatively small family, which was now even smaller, whereas I was used to large families down in Somerset. We thus decided to have one more.

At this time we began to look again at our parenting roles. Neither I nor my partner were particularly enjoying the long stressful hours (which were actually fairly tame by London standards), and the standard career route for me was for this all to become worse (for at least 10 years working up through the lower rungs of partnership). My partner enjoys her work and wanted to do more of it, but this meant days away once or twice a month that I often had to take as annual leave. It just so happened that it was at this time that the shared parental leave scheme came into force. It looked perfect.

In the end I applied to take 7 months shared parental leave while my partner took 2 months. I also put in a flexible working request for my return, to go down to 3 days a week. Both were granted (there wasn’t much choice on the first). Work was really good about things but as the scheme was in its infancy I ended up helping with human resources on the form of the policy. The downside was that the pay was just statutory. This meant going down to around £550/month for 7 months. All non-essential bills were cut, all food shops were Lidl (and still are), and any bills that could be frozen were. (In hindsight I should have asked for some pay during this period, at least matching the maternity schemes and possibly going beyond, trading this for an agreement to work for a particular length of time on my return.)

In any case the shared parental leave worked fairly well. There was a lot less pressure on my partner than the previous two. I could do the night shifts and the sleep training (think waking up every hour throughout the night for several months) without collapsing at work the next day. There was no need to drag a baby to the school and nursery drop offs. The drop in income was mitigated slightly by the fact you can’t really go out or do anything with three kids.

Flexible working also worked, to a certain extent. It felt a little split-brain – three days a week life was back to pre-parental leave days, being in the office and dealing with the day-to-day; then two days a week, I was plunged into the world of chores, kid juggling, and dirty nappies. The cognitive dissonance is sometimes hard. I wrote a bit about it here. Flexible working allowed my partner to work longer or non-standard hours on the other two days.

As the sleeping began to improve I looked at moving up to working four days a week to get back onto a partnership track. However, after a few months we found this wasn’t really working. The kids each needed to be in different locations at varying times between 8:30am and 9:30am, and to be picked up at times that span from 12:30pm to 4:30pm. Working four days a week meant that the workload crept back up to a 8:30am to 6:30pm working day – with commuting time this meant I was out for much of the time the kids were awake. Parenting is a zero-sum game and so someone else needed to be there when I was not there. A nanny or childminder was not an option when we looked at our after tax salaries. My parents have nearly a decade before they retire and my partner’s mother lives three hours away. I started chatting to and reading about others in similar situations – both in real-life and online. Becoming a consultant for a consultancy firm seemed an option. I had two very useful conversations with ex-colleagues, they were a great help explaining how things could work. Also what was the partnership everyone was aiming at, if not being your own boss? I decided to bite the bullet and start my own consultancy business in December 2017. I now work preparing patent drafts and office actions for various clients on a job-by-job basis.

My current arrangement is the best I have. I have traded off income for time. I can now do school and nursery pick-ups and drop offs. My partner can spend days away without a PhD in logistics. The income-time trade-off isn’t as linear as it seems: e.g. being around more means I can spend an hour at 4pm cooking tea from simple ingredients so a meal for 5 costs £2.50 rather than £25, in effect saving £22.50 after-tax. This is found in many other areas. Another is that I now have no commute, so I don’t need to pay £7000 after tax per year just to work. I can also choose to work hard on billable jobs one week, then have less paid work the next week to “work” on enjoyable not directly billable tasks such as this blog post, or processing 292,000 G06 US patent specifications.

As a caveat. It is still early days. It could all go disastrously wrong. I hope it doesn’t.

One thought on “Flexible Working & Career Breaks: A Personal Perspective

  1. Good Lord this resonates with so much of my experience it’s almost as if you wrote it about me. Thanks (and well done) for writing this Ben.

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