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Interview: Lawyer and author Julia Batchelor-Smith

Flagstaff Team

Home comfort… Julia Batchelor-Smith says a day out of her workplace gives her time for family and community involvement

Julia Batchelor-Smith juggles a legal career with family life, and has written a guide for fellow lawyers on work-life balance. She talks to Helen Vause about ‘having it all’.

Devonport’s Julia Batchelor-Smith has found herself at the forefront of recent discussions about work-life balance.

A senior associate at the law firm Minter Ellison Rudd Watts, she is also the mother of two young children and an active member of the local community.

Her friends often wonder out loud how she does it. And Batchelor-Smith herself has put a lot of thought into how she can juggle everything, and how anyone can ‘have it all’.

In a house still full of flowers after a ripper of a 40th birthday party, we caught up with Batchelor-Smith – before she bolted off to a school event – on her Friday off, and chatted about how work-life balance has become ‘her thing’.

Her book Balancing Work and Life: A Practical Guide for Lawyers was published in 2015, and quickly found a wider audience than the legal profession.

And in November last year, Batchelor- Smith was appointed to the New Zealand Law Society’s Culture Change Taskforce, set up in response to the soul-searching in the profession that followed the Russell McVeagh sexual harassment and misconduct scandal.

She’s also a regular commentator on many of the issues that impact working parents.

Batchelor- Smith says she decided she’d be a lawyer when she was a young girl. By the age of eight, she’d managed to set up an interview with a lawyer, talking about the world of law. Already she had the bug to help people and to serve, but also to have a say in things.

Typically for young lawyers, her career started off in the time-honoured tradition of working very long hours, with the rest of life being crammed into the little time that was left.

She met husband Chris Smith at 22, and when they decided to have children about 10 years later, they found – like the many who had trodden the path before them – that something had to change if they were going to live the lives they wanted.

Their first-born daughter, Allegra, is now eight years old, and her sister, Zoe, is five.

“Before I had Allegra, I had been planning to take six months’ maternity leave and then to go back to work full-time. In fact, I took a year off and went back to work for a four-day week,” Batchelor-Smith recalls.

She acknowledges that until a first child comes into their lives, parents can’t really know just how much things will change. She laughs at memories of herself in the early days with baby Allegra.

“My world was turned on its axis. The impact on me in every way was far greater than I’d anticipated. It was all very positive, but overwhelming.”

With her perspective radically altered, Batchelor-Smith wanted to dig deep into worklife balance and strategies that could support it.

She had plenty of insight into the demands and stresses that come with a job like hers and of the issues besetting women in the legal profession.

When the time came to return to work, she wondered how her career path would look. How was she going to fit it all in? Could she have a career and a family life?

“No one is going to make
changes that might be
a better fit for you. You do
have to be brave enough
to push for changes.”

She realised there were issues plaguing her peers and began writing about it regularly in a magazine for lawyers. Her thinking attracted lots of interest from both men and women in the legal profession.

Balancing Work and Life grew out of her magazine columns, and became a bestseller. Researching and writing the book took place during the year she “took off” after the birth of her second child, Zoe.

It’s packed with tips on prioritising workload, dealing with stress, nurturing family and friends, and lots more, for professionals navigating busy lives.

It includes insights and case studies from around 60 members of the legal profession on how they balance the challenges of trying to ‘have it all’.

Of course, there is no magic bullet for balancing work and life, says Batchelor- Smith. But changing the way we approach it can make a big difference to how working parents operate.

In her book, Batchelor-Smith writes: “When it comes to achieving work-life balance, lawyers have a terrible track record. Our profession is littered with chronically stressed people leading unhappy lives.

“We know that being happy at home and at work is important, but on a practical level we’re at a loss as to how to consistently achieve this.

“Having it all is the veritable holy grail of balance in work and life. It’s the mountain top. It’s what we think we should be striving for – fulfilment in all areas of our lives without work negatively impinging on life, or vice versa.”

The first step in figuring it all out and getting life sorted, she says, is knowing what ‘having it all’ means to you and identifying your priorities. In her own life, it meant being able to work for four days a week in the office until two in the afternoon, and making it back home in time to be with her daughters after school. Having a day off gives her time for personal and family activities and for community involvement.

She says achieving life balance can mean facing home truths in a positive way, recognising life isn’t perfect, accepting that you can’t control everything and then focusing on finding solutions. And realising that things change and learning to roll with that, too, Batchelor-Smith says.

Comparing ourselves with others is a trap to avoid; overcoming disappointments with good grace is a winning strategy; as is staying flexible along the changing road of the ongoing juggle.

“I’m a strong advocate for a mindset change,” she says. “I like to put the concept of embracing work-life ‘blending’ rather than chasing work-life balance. To me, that means seeking one contented life, rather than separating the two spheres. With technology today, we can’t really separate work from home life so easily anymore.”

Batchelor-Smith says she’s lucky she has an employer who agrees to flexible working hours, and says it’s an arrangement that’s becoming more common for working parents in her profession and other sectors.

“But women are still held to different standards. If a woman leaves the office to take kids to swimming lessons, there will probably be eye-rolling and comments about skiving off again. If a man does the same thing, all his colleagues will probably be saying what a good dad he is.

“I’m very lucky to be working with people who support me and think like me on these issues. But you do need to get yourself to a point when you can be proactive in being the architect of your own career. No one is going to make changes that might be a better fit for you. You do have to be brave enough to push for changes.”

While her book has brought her into the forefront of a conversation that’s been raging among working parents, she says this is a time of real progress, in the lot of mothers working in the law, at least.

The Law Society’s Culture Change Taskforce was set up soon after a Legal Workplace Environment Survey released last May showed that 18% of lawyers (31% of women and 5% of men) have been sexually harassed, and 52% of lawyers have experienced some form of bullying during their working lifetime. The taskforce is expected to drive culture change within the legal community and to come up with a strategy and action plan by the end of the year.

This article originally appeared in the April 19 edition of The Devonport Flagstaff. Download PDF.