Sukhi Kaler: 'I would feel equally guilty if I didn't work'

POWER MUMS: The litigation lawyer talks about missing her children's first steps and why she decided against private school.

by Christine Armstrong
Last Updated: 25 Jun 2015

Sukhi Kaler is a partner in international law firm Fasken Martineau, specialising in litigation and dispute resolution. She is married, lives in London and has three daughters aged 16, 14 and 11.

Tell me about your role

I have just emerged from a case that was the longest-running litigation ever in the Commercial Court [lasting for 23 years], worth over $1.2 billion (£750m). We’re a small team and most of my career - 15 years - has been spent on it. It was full-on and meant long hours away from my family.

What motivates you to work so hard?

My mum had five children, worked full-time and always had a home-cooked meal on the table: that’s a tough act to follow. The Asian work ethic is too ingrained to stay at home and staying at home isn’t an easy option either - after every period of maternity leave I’ve been desperate to get back to work. As much as I feel guilty for working, I know I would feel equally guilty if I didn’t work.

My older sister also drummed into me the importance of financial independence - she was stuck in a difficult marriage for far too long and told me never to rely on your husband’s income.

When did you question your decisions?

Missing out on key events - like their first steps - was heart-breaking. Breakfast meetings were also tricky because that meant not seeing the girls at all on those days.

I once dropped my eldest at school at the age of five despite suspecting she had broken her finger. Her teacher suggested that she should be in A&E, which was a wake-up call, as well as very embarrassing. We did go to A&E and I missed my meeting and the sky didn’t fall down around me as a result. I learnt from that.

What helped?

I’m a big believer in sleep-training babies - it really saved me. I’ve never had a nanny or au pair, but relied heavily on a nursery. It was at my husband’s work, which meant he dealt with the drop-offs and pick-ups and could be there if they fell ill. My husband, ironically, has a far more flexible job in IT than I do. He is incredibly hands-on and does the shopping and cooking, as well as holding down a full-time job.

School had an after-school club. I considered using a breakfast club too but a colleague said that I may as well just have the girls adopted!

I also have a very good friend who very kindly will do pick-ups on short notice and has on occasion woken to find my girls on her doorstep when I’ve unexpectedly had to get in early.  So it’s been a bit of a mish-mash, but we’ve managed to make it work. Now that the girls are older it’s that much easier.

What do you do for you?

I try to get my hair done every week and to holiday with friends, without the family, now and then.

How do you think the legal profession works for mums?

There are still many challenges. Over 50% of the current intake into law firms and the Bar are women.  But many women leave before getting partnership. Of nearly 10,000 partners in the top firms, only 20% are women, only 17% of High Court judges are women and there is only one female Supreme Court judge.

I advise younger female lawyers to think about where they want to be in five years time and be really proactive about getting there.  Mentors are great – you should have them – but never forget that no one can or will do it for you.

Is your current firm supportive?

Yes, and being a partner helps enormously. Many of the male partners have young children and it does make a difference. I do make an effort not to use the kids as an excuse for missing a work meeting or event (even when the kids are the reason). I rarely discuss my children at work, which speaks for itself.

Some firms still live in the past. At a former firm I was specifically asked by a partner if I planned to have any more children. If I left work at 6pm to carry on at home they would mumble about it being a half-day.

What advice would you give younger women you work with?

I’ve known women who had children and didn’t go back to work initially, because they couldn’t afford childcare, but they then lost confidence.  It will be tough, but if you can break through that initial barrier it does get easier and is worth the effort.

I’ve half-wondered if law is a career I would genuinely recommend - I think on balance it is - it’s challenging and can be fun and I imagine it’s pretty tough in most other fields too. Having said that, my face dropped when my 16 year old recently said she was considering law as an option on the basis that I seem to enjoy it so much!  I think I had subconsciously tried to steer her away from it.

How has it changed as they’ve grown up?

They are forever emailing and texting me: ‘ETA?’, so the urge to go home to them doesn’t lessen. On the other hand, when you are free and want to hang out with them they’re not always in the same mood. As teenagers they have whole lives that are separate from you and that can be a bit scary. The challenge is to be there when they need you - when their confidence drops. It’s just really important to keep them talking.

How do other mums perceive you?

Some have been a great source of support. I don’t get to hang out at the gates, so don’t get involved in school politics, which has been a blessing.  I think they’ve been a bit envious on the rare occasion when I did a pick-up and my children were just so excited to see me - you don’t get rewarded like that when you are doing it every day.

Surviving or thriving?

When I had three under the age of four I was barely surviving. It was physically exhausting – I still call those ‘the dark days’ - but it does get better.

We deliberately chose not to go the private school route because we didn’t want the financial pressure. Now we’ve got three through the 11+ we feel lucky to have emerged unscathed. It was the right decision for us. The girls see that my work enables us to do great things and go on good holidays, and they do appreciate that.

Christine is a contributing editor of MT, owner of www.villas4kids.com and a partner at Jericho Chambers.

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