Shelley McGivern, Partner, Addleshaw Goddard

For someone who has made it to partner in the corporate team of a leading law firm and who works as a judge in her spare time, the remarkable thing about Shelley McGivern is the extent to which she’s managed to make her career fit around her life, and not the other way around. McGivern tells us that two things allowed her to do this: patience and timing. “Doing things at the right time, and the right time for you—that’s really important,” she says.

Indeed, when McGivern returned from maternity leave to find many of her peers pushing for promotion to partner, her decision was not to follow suit, but to recognise that the time wasn’t right for her and to wait. She instead chose to take the role of “Legal Director”, a position AG had created to retain employees who needed an alternative to going straight for partner: “It was a role which sat alongside partner; just as senior, with the same level of work, but minus the business development side of things,” she says. For McGivern, it was the perfect fit, allowing her to continue doing what she loved while her two children were small, even if that meant “arriving at the office with vomit on my shoulder from time to time”.

McGivern is quick to point out that the way women manage their work-life balance is an individual thing, but for her, work progression always had to take a back seat where her children were concerned: “It was and always will be that they come first, always.” But that didn’t mean success had to take a back seat too. Indeed, it was McGivern’s definition of success, and how long she felt it was acceptable to achieve that, that meant no part of her life had to give, and she advises others to consider adapting their own thought processes this way: “I’d ask other women: Do you only see success as making partner within seven to eight years? Or is it okay to push it out a little, or take a bit of a detour? Personally, I don’t think you should see the latter as a failure.”

Still, McGivern acknowledges that she has been helped along her path to success by two key factors. Firstly, she’s worked in an era where the equality agenda has been steadily moving up as a priority issue within the workplace; and secondly, AG has provided her with a tremendous degree of support: “When I came back after my first child I was told: ‘You know what’s expected of you in your role; the where, when, and how is entirely up to you.’” And AG stuck to that.

Once her children were older and more self-sufficient, things became easier for McGivern and she was able to embark upon a new challenge—first becoming a judge, having never practised litigation, and then going for partner. “I felt like I was stagnating a little bit,” she says. “Work as a judge was harder than I thought it was going to be but I still didn’t feel as though I was actually pushing myself enough. So that’s when I thought I’d make the step up to partnership.” Aware of the imbalance between men and women at the top of the firm, AG was keen to support her: “They went out of their way and did everything they possibly could to make this happen for me.”

I think the only way we’re really going to change is if we bring the men on board, and include them, and make it their issue as well.

That said, McGivern knows she’s the exception rather than the rule: “I’ve seen many women drop out at around the four- to five-year mark,” she says. The reasons for this are varied, but chief among them, she feels, are the unrealistic and often male-driven behaviours and lifestyles that women feel they must emulate to have any chance of becoming a partner: “Seeing the often unrealistic examples set by male partners, or women trying to emulate the lifestyles of male partners, many women think they may as well just check out then, because why would they want to work so hard for the next few years for something that isn’t achievable—or live how they wouldn’t want to live?”

McGivern believes that an important first step in trying to address this is to reposition the way the demands of partnership are communicated to people early on in their careers, so that it becomes aspirational—not alienating—to people from all manner of circumstances: “Personalising the role, to say, ‘Maybe for you it could mean this,’ as opposed to showing just one way and one way only, would stop people being alienated from the get-go,” she says. She also believes it’s important for senior people to help the mid-career lawyers—who have other obligations at this stage in their lives—find different ways to excel; this could mean, for example, forfeiting one-fifth of the traditional partner-level requirements and the same proportion of reward: “Essentially, I think there needs to be a shift-change in what’s required, or what’s perceived to be required, to hold the senior role.”

But of course, no matter how many adjustments are made, sometimes the juggling act can just be too much for women to overcome—whether it be finding adequate and affordable childcare support, or perhaps choosing to put a husband’s or partner’s career before their own. And in many cases, it’s the support a man has at home that enables them to propel their careers forward: “If a wife is at home and not working,” says McGivern, “their husbands aren’t worried whether the kids have got what they need in their bags, or whether the ironing’s been done, etc. It’s just not on their agenda.”

Thankfully, with her husband’s support and a forward-thinking firm behind her, McGivern has managed to stay in the profession by finding a balance that works. Nevertheless, there’s a secret ingredient in all of this, which is that McGivern genuinely and emphatically loves her job: “I realised how much I loved my job during a short sabbatical; having had an amazing break, rather than dreading the return to work, I couldn’t wait to get back—being a full-time, stay-at-home mum is definitely not for me!”

However, none of this is to suggest that her career has been plain sailing. There have, McGivern admits, been many times when it felt as though the pressure cooker of work and life was going to boil over; for example, when trying to complete deals within deadlines while her husband was away and her children were small and invariably screaming the house down. But she persevered. When the going gets tough, McGivern’s philosophy is to push through and “just get on with it”. At any rate, she’s found that there are other things one can do to help break up the evenings if she is required to be present in the office in the run-up to completing a deal, such as when her husband drops her daughter off at the office: “She loves coming into the office, drawing on a whiteboard or sorting the stationary cupboard, and we’ll have dinner together afterwards.” Things like this help to make the fragmented weeks a bit easier to cope with all round.

But there are red lines. What could have really broken McGivern during her career, she says, would have been missing the things that really mattered, such as the children’s family assemblies or sports days: “I have actually never missed one of those. Dates like this are secured way in advance, and I’m pretty strict about going. If I’d kept missing things like that, it may’ve taken me to breaking point.”

The sense of perspective underpinning this is something that was reinforced in McGivern’s late twenties following the death of her mother: “That gave me a huge amount of perspective. I realised that there are actually very few things in life that are worth getting truly stressed about,” she says. McGivern is therefore quick to console colleagues if they make mistakes, reminding them that most issues can be resolved with a calm head, and at the very worst money may be lost, or careers affected, but ultimately, “Nobody’s actually going to die!”

It’s why McGivern advises women to dare to say no, or to push back when trivial things, such as being asked to join a team meeting at 8 a.m. or 6 p.m., make life difficult: “This kind of thing might not seem all that unreasonable to men, but for many women, it truly is. I think you have to be brave and just say, ‘Actually that doesn’t work for me,’ because, honestly, things don’t usually have to happen at those precise points in time.”

Unsurprisingly, McGivern is an advocate of flexible working, and has directly benefited from it, but she emphasises that it is incumbent on the individual concerned to make a case for working flexibly, even if that means causing disruption to business as usual. “If you want to work from home it’s really important to show the benefits of doing so early on, proving how it’s possible to get twice as much done when you’re not interrupted,” she says. “Then nobody can question what you’re doing.” Getting this kind of momentum going must, therefore, start with someone who is willing to stand up and push for what they need. “Otherwise you risk having lots of men in a room doing what they’ve always done, with their wives behind the scenes effectively sorting out their lives.”

In the spirit of being realistic about what is possible, and achievable, McGivern also feels it is important to hear from more senior women about their own experiences in rising to the top of the workplace, and to not just showcase those with full-time nannies who rarely see the insides of their own homes: “I don’t think women who manage their lives this way are necessarily the best role models because lots of people simply don’t aspire to that,” says McGivern. “I think the more people you have at this level who got there by doing things differently, the more people will think, ‘Actually, I could do that.’”

But it’s not just about women: McGivern also acknowledges that it’s wise to take good advice and guidance from whoever offers it. “The key to any formal, long-lasting mentor relationship is to be strategic about who these people are, and not to settle for something you simply fall into, just because someone likes you. There are fabulous people who can be brilliant mentors, but they may not have the type of character that goes into a room and shouts about, or massively supports you. You need to be strategically—but not ruthlessly— working out who the influencers are. They are also the people who are going to be willing to stand up for you and fight your corner if necessary.”

Doing things at the right time, and the right time for you—that’s really important.

In fact, many of McGivern’s own sponsors were men, and their perspective was important even if women generally had better people skills. “It’s important not to perpetuate this imbalance so that women end up taking all the responsibility for mentoring other women. I think the only way we’re really going to change is if we bring the men on board, and include them, and make it their issue as well.”

This isn’t to say she doesn’t want to play a leading role. In fact, McGivern now heads up “Flourish” at AG, an internal development programme that promotes diversity at the firm. And it isn’t just issues concerning gender that are discussed; the programme tackles diversity as a whole: “Black and other minorities are hugely underrepresented in professional services firms,” notes McGivern. And she thinks this really matters: “I think diversity as a whole, and actually hearing people’s different ideas and perspectives is so much better than middle-aged men all sat around the room all saying the same thing.”

Still, despite all this good work, McGivern recognises that old habits die hard, especially on the front line of client interaction, which can still to this day feel like an old boys’ network on occasion, particularly in the corporate world: “Men will go out and get drunk together and banter—and you probably have to join in with that to a certain extent,” says McGivern. “But personally, I think it can be much harder for a woman to pick up the phone or send an email to a male client saying, ‘Do you fancy going out for a drink on Friday?’ without raising a few eyebrows. For a man to do that to another man is much more natural.” Finding a different way to network effectively and pushing that agenda is key.

But McGivern, who’s demonstrably willing to play the long game, believes things will eventually change. “When more women start moving into senior roles, we can start working and acting according to our own rule book.”