Nikki Leatherland, Head of HR at Peters & Peters, a leading commercial litigation and business crime boutique, talks to us about her HR career, the choices she’s made, working flexibly and the benefits of working for both large law firms and boutiques.

A journey in law

 

Tell us a little about your background

I have worked all of my career in HR within legal services.  I started out in recruitment at DLA Piper where I was promoted to Recruitment Executive. Whilst there, I undertook an MA in Human Resource Management and transferred into their HR team. As an HR Officer, I was a generalist and had an intensive introduction, shadowing senior HR officers and taking on more and more responsibility. 

A couple of years’ later I moved to Stephenson Harwood as an HR Manager and loved it. It was again a generalist role and it was a very progressive firm, so I learnt a lot and was involved in some interesting projects. I had my first baby and returned to Stephenson Harwood working four days a week. I found it difficult to balance regular out-of-hours interviewing with the nursery pick-ups, so when I had a second child, I decided to look for a role which worked better with my childcare responsibilities.

I was contacted by a recruiter who said that Rosenblatt Solicitors was looking for a part-time HR manager. It was perfect. They needed someone to set up the full HR function and didn’t want to pay a full-time salary, and I wanted to work three days a week. In the interview, the Managing Partner asked, ‘What hours do you want to do?’ We agreed I would do three full days but there was flexibility to do four shorter days and I could work from home if and when it was needed.

The role at Rosenblatt worked really well but after a few years I needed more of a challenge. So in September 2017, after having my third child, I moved to Peters and Peters as Head of HR. The role was advertised as four days per week. Initially I was reluctant to commit to this many hours, but the people were lovely and they were prepared to offer the informal flexibility I needed. Also, as the children were a little bit older, it made sense to employ a nanny, which has made it that much easier to take on a more senior management role.

 

What does the role at Peters and Peters entail?

It’s much more of a strategic role. The firm is going through a transition stage. There is a fairly new management team, including a new Managing Partner, Senior Partner, Finance Director, BD Director and I, who are all pushing in the same direction. It’s a great role and I really feel I can make a difference because they are open to new ideas and I can share my previous experiences.  It has actually been less stressful performing a senior role (from a ‘how do I balance my career with family life’ point of view), which might be down to me being able to manage my own time, having better childcare (I am not trying to do it all), combined with a very open and trusting management team. It really is a lovely organisation and although I have standard hours, I can flex my time informally. Of course, I have to be flexible too.

 

You mentioned better childcare, what do you mean by that?

When the children were younger, I wanted to take on the lion’s share of caring for them. But once you have children of different ages you have to adapt your approach. I now have a ‘mummy nanny’ (I had never heard of this!).  She is someone who has her own children but comes to the house and cares for her own children and mine at the same time. It is a very unique arrangement. She actually approached me with the solution, having advertised for only evening and holiday childcare, and she is fantastic. She was previously the room leader at a local nursery so she is full of creative ideas and seems to juggle five children no problem! The thing with childcare is that it evolves and changes as the children get older. In some respects, they need you more the older they get, to help with homework or to ferry them round to their various playdates! But the arrangement for now works perfectly.

 

What is the flexible working policy at Peters and Peters?

We have both formal and informal flexible working arrangements, which include part-time working and working from home.  We take all our flexible working requests seriously and it is pretty open. We have, for example, someone who is a School Governor and they are able to flex their responsibilities by leaving early or coming in late as the demands of this requires.

We know we are not as far ahead as some firms on this topic and have not openly communicated a formal flexible working policy in the way that other firms have done.  We are very aware too that demand is increasing, but as a smaller firm we want to take into consideration our culture and ensure it does not erode if a large proportion of employees are out of the office at any one time. We want to keep the cohesive, collegiate and sociable team environment. We want to be able to continue, for example, our regular socials. We also have to balance client demands, which can be difficult.

We have started looking at flexibility as a whole, our expectations of employees working flexibly and how it impacts wellbeing. We are also seeing an increase in demand from men and many of our clients and competitors are embracing flexible working too, so it is slowly becoming more mainstream.

Thoughts and learnings

 

What is your advice to others who want to follow a similar career path?

Work hard, show you are keen and be prepared to take on responsibility that might be outside your remit. My main advice would be consider the sort of organisation you want to work for.  Find out about their culture and decide what you can learn from the role. I have worked in very large, and small, boutique law firms and I have learnt something in all of them.  They all offer different advantages and challenges.

From my experience, larger firms offer more varied opportunities whilst you are progressing and will be at the forefront of developments. Whereas smaller firms, even with breaks in your career path, are really keen to employ individuals who have wider experience and sector knowledge. There is also less bureaucracy so you are better able to implement change or initiatives that might take much longer in a larger firm. 

 

What are the differences in working in a large and smaller law firm?

It does depend on the organisation, but as an employee in a smaller law firm, I am definitely gaining broader experience and have more responsibility and autonomy to make decisions. The culture is also very supportive and there is less likely to be a long-hours culture. There may be a trade-off, in terms of salary or benefits, but there are plenty of advantages. Working at Peters and Peters I really feel like I am involved in the business and can speak to the partners at any time.  From a legal perspective too, I think it’s a really attractive option. Our lawyers benefit from early responsibility and generally a more realistic work-life balance, without compromising on work quality.

 

What would be your advice to your younger self on how to manage a career with family life?

Our needs and wants change, so try to evolve with the circumstances and do not plan too far ahead. With hindsight I’d probably have worried less about my career. There are many examples out there, good and bad, of people trying to juggle their careers with children, but I have managed to maintain a fulfilling career, get promoted and still have a happy family life. I’m not saying it’s always easy, and choices do need to be made along the way. It is a constant trade-off between wanting to do your role as a parent well and your job.  So now, for example, I don’t make my children’s birthday cakes – I buy them! And I’ve stopped feeling guilty about it!

 

Huge thanks to Nikki for sharing her thoughts and advice on her career, working flexibly and her career advice.  If you would be interested in taking part in a Q&A to share your story, we would love to hear from you. You can contact us at [email protected] or follow us on LinkedIn.

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