Mythily Katsaris is a partner with Fladgate LLP, a firm focused on partnerships with its clients and a member of the International Lawyers Network. In this episode, Lindsay and Mythily discuss the disproportionate effect of the pandemic on women, particularly women of color, burnout, the changing legal profession, client empathy, and the impact of the pandemic on leadership and leadership opportunities.
Mythily: I am with Fladgate we’re a firm of solicitors based in London. I lead the India desk and I also head the Luxury Assets Group. And I’m also the firm’s inclusion and diversity partner. I am dual qualified in England and Wales as well as India. And I focus primarily on the Indian diaspora. And my core skills are that I’m a private M&A lawyer, but I dabble with everything that comes my way and a lot of private client work as well.
Lindsay: We’ve got a lot of questions we want to cover today and some of them are pretty in-depth, so I’m going to dive right in. How do you think that the pandemic has disproportionately affected women in the workplace?
Mythily: So, there’s a lot of research out there. I think McKinsey did a massive report earlier in the year and broadly speaking, what they found was that women were feeling more exhausted. They were burnt out and they were under significantly more pressure than men in comparison. And that was compounded by the burdens of caregiving and caregiving at two levels caregiving in the sense of those who had children young or old, it didn’t matter. And of course, elderly family. So it was being put in the middle between your parents and your kids. And that was accelerated by the fact that women constantly tend to worry about things more than men. And they worried that their performance was negatively judged because of their caregiver responsibilities.
So it became quite a chicken and egg scenario. And I think one of the important things that the report did touch on was the experience hasn’t been the same for all women and where we’ve seen some gains in representation overall, they haven’t always translated into gains for women of color. And the concept of intersectionality in the I&D world is not new but is definitely being talked about, particularly with the pandemic because the pandemic has disproportionately affected people of color. So for women from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds, this did place further pressures and further difficulties. So, all in all, it hasn’t been great for women.
Lindsay: Absolutely. And I read an interesting article from Harvard Business Review a couple of weeks ago about how, especially that caregiving role has extended to the workplace too, where women are doing the invisible work of caregiving and you see it as something that “women do” and especially as you say, women of color do, and that’s considered something that is “women’s work”, but it actually does have a really big impact on the bottom line of the organization that you’re working for. So it is a skill that is very valuable for the organization that you’re working for but is not being properly compensated or recognized at work. Is that something that you’re seeing a lot of too?
Mythily: Absolutely, Lindsay. I think women by nature, and I don’t mean to offend anyone else, but I think women by nature have that pastoral care ability or the ability to give that pastoral care. And in addition to the responsibilities and nurturing of the families that have extended to the workplace as well, to their teams, to their colleagues, to their wider network of friends and business associates. It has not been an easy last two years, I would say. A lot of uncertainty just generally about where things were going and I think I’m going to lead on to the next point, which is in terms of resources and how organizations have actually seen a lot of initiatives, which were in development stages at various organizations, that money has been diverted if I can say so because I think there were other pressing matters. So focus on manpower, which was available and allocated for initiatives to get more women to be sponsored and mentored.
All of that was perhaps put to the faces. And just when we were beginning to see momentum being gained with initiatives for gender projects and gender initiatives, that took a backrest because it was all reactive and everything was focused towards how do we get through this pandemic, which when we started off, when we started off in about March 2020, nobody expected how long this would go on for. So it was a month, six weeks, maybe three months at the very best. And then it just went on and the burden of what women at work were facing was disastrous.
I had a whole bunch of colleagues and friends at work and we were all doing this, an hour on and an hour off of work because we just had to. There was no other choice other than just switch on and switch off. And just switching on and switching off was hard because a day in one’s life became not just an 8:00 AM to 7:00 PM, which is far more than the usual nine to five, but it was just continuous. And it had a huge impact on how people were working, how people were feeling, and it all got morphed into a huge amount of burnout. And I think we’re still dealing with that burnout and the consequences of the burnout even today. And I think we’ll continue to for a while.
Lindsay: And you talk about that burnout and the long-term impacts of that. And I’m curious as to what you think about the impacts on young lawyers as well, who are just building their careers and now having to learn a different way of working without the benefit of seeing more senior lawyers in the way that they work and being exposed? And you’ve talked too about intersectionality before. How do you think young lawyers are being impacted and especially young women lawyers are being impacted by having to balance career and family and not being in the office and all of those different factors?
Mythily: This is a very big issue. There’s always been a big issue around lack of feedback, clarity on objectives, expectations, et cetera, et cetera. And firms, organizations, we all build platforms and we’re trying to build a culture of regular feedback and so on and so forth. But I think what the pandemic has done is, there’s a huge divide. It’s almost become like a two-tier system. You’re either the kind of person who is in the office, or you’re not in the office. So there’s this, I need to be present, presenteeism. I don’t even know if that’s a word, but the feeling that you have to work and more on sociable hours than you did before. And not being in the office, you have to make up for that.
So not having that distinction between a work life and a home life, that’s definitely become an issue. So one of the things we’ve looked at doing is, as a firm, Fladgate, is very conscious of the fact that things have changed. There’s a lot more flexibility and agility in how we work, but there is a huge amount of importance for senior staff and senior partners to lead by example, and actually at all levels of senior management or even junior level management. You have to lead by example in this respect. And it hasn’t been easy. It’s harder because of additional pressures because we’ve been talking about things coming back to normal, but they’re not normal right now yet. And we’ve got to live with this COVID, we’ve got to try and adapt ourselves to the new way of working.
Disruption. I think that that’s the key word. There’s been disruption in every facet of our lives. Disruption to education at all levels, school leavers to university, to LBC students, to trainees. And I think the focus has to be on how do we support our colleagues and individuals, particularly junior ones who always learned by osmosis in addition to their regular skills-based training? And one of the things we’ve learned from the pandemic is that we need to be here for each other socially and physically as well, to the extent that we all can to support each other. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re a senior lawyer supporting a junior lawyer, but it can sometimes also be vice versa. And there’s a lot of, as I call loosely, reverse mentoring as well. And there’s a lot of learning that has happened over the last two years.
Lindsay: Obviously, you said Fladgate has been very cognizant of that and has made a lot of changes. Do you think other law firms will follow suit and will see changes throughout the legal profession in general?
Mythily: Absolutely. I think the legal industry has made a lot of changes in the last two years. Agile working, which was probably in theory existent, was not in practice, really implemented. So that’s changed. And it’s by giving people agency, autonomy over how they work and where they work. And one of the things we’ve recognized is that there is a new genre of people who are choosing the way they lead their life. They’re reevaluating their life choices. We’ve seen huge attrition of lawyers, people who are choosing to leave the profession and we have to engage.
There’s no other choice left for firms like us, but to engage in discussions with people, whether it’s about sabbaticals, whether it’s about relocations, working in different ways. That would never have been supported before. So I do think that lawyers also have less fear about advocating for a better work-life balance now. And there seems to be less concern about asking for these things and not that they will damage their career path prospects as they’ve proven to be successful. I think the last two years have been a testament to the fact that there is a way to make this work.
Lindsay: And that leads into my next question, which is around the idea of the legal profession having one of the highest incidences of mental health crisis of any profession because of the pressure and intensive nature of the work that lawyers do. Do you think we’ll ever change the way that the profession frames the way that we recognize professional and personal success in the profession to alleviate some of those pressures?
Mythily: I think firms are recognizing the role they have in providing support, building on that. And this means having a holistic approach, providing physical, mental support, providing financial wellbeing, social wellbeing, CSR initiatives because that’s what people are asking for. We’re seeing a lot more discussion around mental health and as a consequence, less stigma, which is excellent. We found senior leaders in the legal profession and also within Fladgate having shared their lived experience with mental health issues. And there is huge power in people sharing their own experiences. We’re not just talking about it. I think lots of founders started putting things into action. We’ve done mental health first aider training. So this is the introduction of a whole new concept of mental health first aiders being your first point of contact.
Clients are changing how they work with firms. We’re seeing more of an appetite for clients to know about what else we do other than the typical legal service. They ask us about our I&D initiatives, our I&D objectives. They talk more about ESG and their appetite to find out about the firm and the culture has increased substantially. So I don’t think one can sit back and just be traditional about it and say, “It worked just fine in the past. So there’s no reason to drop the ball and change things.” And also, I think there’s a huge amount of importance that firms have to give to be open, approachable, not just to their people, but also to their clients.
Lindsay: I think you’re right, clients really are driving a lot of this, and law firms are finally too. And it’s not just a question of if it’s going to happen, but when it’s going to happen and it is happening. That’s the great thing. What do you think your main challenges are in today’s marketplace?
Mythily: Just challenges around attracting and retaining talent. So there are all the usual issues associated with attracting talent and retaining them. I think coming back to the same point, but people’s priorities have shifted in the pandemic. People have different expectations around their working life and that this should be in a way that works for them. So if they come to a law firm, they’re not always looking for a place where they succeed and their ambitions are purely or solely based on their legal careers. The working model is evolving. We have to adapt and to ensure that both infrastructure and investment are there to support this. And I think in many ways, we’re seeing a shift in the balance of power in this employer-employee relationship, particularly generationally as a result of people having more agency in how they work. So we’re doing everything that we need to do.
I think one of the things that I’m particularly proud of is Fladgates’ apprenticeship scheme that we just launched. And that’s really a big social mobility initiative that we’ve been working on over the last year. And what we want to do is get people in who would probably never have seen the inside of a law firm come and work with us for six years. We do their training. We help them financially through all those courses that they need to do. And at the end of the six years, they qualify as solicitors with Fladgate. So that’s an initiative that I’m hugely, hugely proud of. And we’re now just about beginning to get the word out and we’re already receiving applications, which is wonderful news.
Lindsay: That’s really cool. That’s a very cool thing. So what is a question that I didn’t ask you that I should have asked you?
Mythily: I think I’d like to perhaps share the point about what we saw during the pandemic, which is about how we did things differently to address the impact on women and young lawyers. Our biggest lesson was recognizing that there is no one size fits all approach. And we agreed early on that whatever leadership decisions we were taking, we were being more understanding and accommodating and taking quite a bespoke approach to each one’s problems. So person-centric, as opposed to this is our policy, this is a rule.
We talked about how we should actually regularly have chats with people who were struggling or even if they weren’t struggling, but they were having challenges, which was practically everyone and offering help and offering support and offering on the cuff advice of, stand back, sit back, switch off work, for now, take a couple of hours, do what you need to do, and let’s catch up two hours later. So being quite impulsive about, don’t worry about the client, we’ll manage the client.
And actually, there was a huge amount of empathy from clients as well, which was hugely reassuring. And then, from the midst of the pandemic, when it was really, really bad to when it came to returning to the office, one of the things I’m really pleased about is, we arranged these town hall-style meetings across the firm, just to get a diverse feel of the challenges, preferences, concerns. Who wanted to come back to work? Who wanted to come back to work for just two days a week? And we listened and we really, really listened. And I think what we’ve ended up with is a system which I’m very hopeful will work, but it actually gives a lot of reassurance to people to say that their voices were heard, that their preferences were respected.
We organized during the pandemic for working parents, in particular with young children, a lot of webinars from external people about self-care, the oxygen mask technique, talking about the challenges of parenting during lockdown, resilience that was particularly for people with families. And we invited not just our Fladgate people, but also their spouses, their partners, et cetera, et cetera. So from a practical perspective, I think what we did really well was we offered these various resources and we offered temporary changes to working patterns, which I talked about earlier, and a lot of comms around empathy with people’s circumstances.
One final point that I’d like to make is, we also talked about financial wellbeing because the pandemic did see cuts that were made, that had to be made, people who were asked to go on furlough, and so on and so forth. So we have actually introduced the concept of financial wellbeing as part of our overall wellbeing strategy. And I believe that it’s been an important area to provide support in, not just during the pandemic, but even now that we’re out of the thick of it.
Lindsay: Wow. That’s really incredible. That’s a lot of great support that I’m sure most people wouldn’t have thought of or even expected. And as you say, checking in with people when they’re struggling and even when they’re not, just to make sure that everyone really is doing okay, I think is really a huge part of getting through all of this together.
Mythily: I also wanted to make a point about, in the UK, we saw this issue of the pandemic actually affecting women in terms of leadership and leadership opportunities. I think that was probably one of the things we said we would talk about. And I talked about how resources were reallocated because of the pandemic. But I think one of the things that is a huge setback to women in leadership is the suspension of gender pay gap reporting. And that gives the opportunity… I’m not saying that firms and organizations will do that, but it does give them the opportunity to hide behind the suspension as a way to justify lack of progress.
So stalled professional growth, through lack of opportunities and lack of training and lack of networking, combined with these promotion and freezes, all are a very deadly cocktail, to be honest. And particularly when the accountability of it all being suspended through the gender pay gap reporting, I think that is something that I really hope is not extended to the next year. And I really do hope that the purpose, which gender pay gap reporting aims to address is in spirit and in practice re-initiated so that we all know that the reality is not great and particularly for women in leadership. So I’m really looking forward to looking at gender pay gap reports in the coming years.
Lindsay: That’s a really important point you make, and I didn’t realize that they had done that. And you’re right, I think the pandemic is a convenient excuse to put a hold on a lot of things for women, for women of color, for people of color, so that progress can be slowed or stopped. Actually, I see it as more of an opportunity to really look at the things that you need to be doing as an organization, as a firm, and to put some of those things into practice, because when’s a better time than right now rather than putting a pause on them? But I think you’re right, that a lot of companies and organizations are saying, “We should just stop everything that we’re doing.” And I think as you said, a lot of funds have been diverted instead. I’ve seen a lot of organizations do that. So those are really important points and something to look at.
Mythily: Absolutely. There’s this little… I don’t know if you’ve come across this, terminology or phrase, but it’s called the two-tier workforce as well, where offices are dominated by one gender and that obviously has a negative impact on culture. But I think that’s something that all of us at every level need to ensure doesn’t happen. So there’s a lot of ground to cover. And as you said, there’s no better time than now. There’s no better time than now.
Lindsay: That’s right. And especially moving forward. I’ll be really curious to see too, as we do return to working more in the office and agile working becomes more prevalent if there are opportunities that are being missed with people not being in the office. If women are taking advantage of agile working more because obviously, it’s easier with childcare just to make sure that women and are not missing certain opportunities, not being in the office, networking opportunities, and those types of things. I’ll be curious to see what the impact on that is long term.
Mythily: There is bound to be an impact, isn’t there? I think if we tell ourselves that that’s not going to happen, we’re fooling ourselves. The fact is, how much we can do. There’s a choice involved here and every woman has to work doubly hard to succeed. And so there are choices to be made, but they have to be supported by us as organizations, as leaders as well. So it is going to be an interesting next few years. And I think the importance of being optimistic about it, it’s there. I think we need to be optimistic about it because you have to see the glass half full.
Lindsay: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think the truth of it is, the next generation of the workforce, there’s also quite a lot of people, men, non-binary, who want to work from home and have more agile working as well. So I think we’re going to see a really interesting mix of people find new ways to network and develop business anyway.
Mythily: Without a doubt. Without a doubt. It’s clear that there is a generational divide between how it was done traditionally and how it will be done in the future. And I have to say that from my experiences of Fladgate and the people that we were working with and I was supporting and people who I was talking to, there was equal balanced gender. It was men and women all struggling, sometimes more women than men.
But when we talked about the one hour on and one hour off, it was for both partners and it was, how do you make it work for you as a couple if you have the privilege of being in a relationship? Or if you were a single parent, then it’s a completely different ball game, but it was for everyone. I think it was challenging. And there was a lot of innovation on how you do it. And I think I’m pleased about the fact that COVID, the pandemic, completely unexpected, it created chaos, it created the right amount of disruption for us to take away a lot of good things, which I’m very hopeful will last for a much longer time.
Lindsay: So what’s one piece of advice you would leave everyone with?
Mythily: When someone asks me for advice, my colleagues and friends, I usually say, “Take it a day at a time.” Because when you over-plan and when you stick to the rule book, it usually means you are going to be let down. So take it a day at a time. Have big goals, have big ambitions, work towards them but take it a day at a time and prioritize yourself. Prioritize. Don’t feel guilty about prioritizing your families, your other bits about you that you want to focus on. Don’t feel that. Don’t be guilted by it. Do what is right by yourself and plan for a day at a time.