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Working mum takes giant strides

News

Cite as: (2005) 79(11) LIJ, p. 19

Sole practice has given Paula Chatfield the chance to mould her business around her personal and family life as revealed in this news story and the accompanying feature.

Solicitor Paula Chatfield was without a job and supporting her four children when she made a life-altering decision.

Tired of working part-time in a city law firm, Ms Chatfield decided it was time to strike out on her own in a bit to find the ideal work/family balance.

Her decision to leave part-time work, where she admits she had “what would be regarded as very flexible working arrangements”, came after a six-month sabbatical at the start of this year. A death in her family also prompted her to reassess her life.

“I had intended to go back (after the six months off) but then I resigned quite suddenly,” she said.

“I resigned without another job, nowhere to go and no decisions made.”

The thought of setting up her own practice lingered in the back of her mind, and she decided to pursue this goal.

A mother of four children, aged seven to 13 years, she said she had been “fearful and anxious” about the prospect of going it alone.

“It’s a huge risk setting up your own practice, especially as a mother when you have got so many domestic obligations and the final risk for us was quite substantial because my income is quite important,” she said.

But the result of Ms Chatfield’s decision has been a more fulfilling career and a better balanced family life.

As a sole practitioner, she consults to a small law firm in the city and has an agreement to use its meeting rooms for her own clients as well.

“I am saying to other solicitors that I can come in and run their litigation and do the cases they do not have the expertise to run,” she said.

Taking this approach has given Ms Chatfield personal flexibility as well as the ability to set up her own practice, but without the stress of finding new clients, having to lease office space, or the expense of fitting out an office.

“I didn’t think it was possible but I have actually set up my practice on a shoestring,” Ms Chatfield said.

Although it is early days, Ms Chatfield is satisfied the change has achieved more time for herself and her family.

“One of my main motivating factors was how could I structure myself so I was more in control of how I managed my time and when I did my work,” she said.

“I also want to be free to develop the types of cases I enjoy doing.”

Now in control of her own hours, she said her aim was to spend half her working hours doing law and half pursuing other interests.

“My aim is to remain in a quasi part-time role,” she said. This involves consulting in the city, doing some work from her home office, and taking Fridays off.

“So far the verdict is really good,” she said. “At least three or four nights of the week I am home when the children get home from school.

“My children are a lot happier and it is a lot easier on my husband as well ... it is working better for me and for my family.

“For me as a sole practitioner consulting, one of the great liberations has been to have no budget.

“What I earn is a week-by-week proposition and if I don’t earn enough, that’s my problem. It doesn’t affect other people in the same way and I don’t have the psychological pressure of the budgets.”

After being admitted to practice in 1990, Ms Chatfield had her first child in 1992 when she was a second-year lawyer. She has worked almost continuously since then, taking a year off after her first child, about four months off after her second and third children, and then nine months after her fourth.

She has worked at three law firms – small, medium and large – and each time she has moved on it has been to try and “better accommodate my role as mother with my role as a lawyer”.

In her latest move, Ms Chatfield has made a determined effort to mould her business around her personal life. As there are not many mothers of four who have set up their own law practices, she has set about developing her own model to suit her own, unique needs.

“There is no point looking at other people’s models because they are not relevant to me,” she said.

“I have decided to put the blinkers on and do my own thing.”

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