My career story: "I combined Slaughters partnership with being a mother of six"
Laura Carstensen spent 10 years as a partner at Slaughter and May before quitting law entirely and moving to the Welsh countryside. She tells us about her big career decisions.
For a long time you combined your role as a City partner with being a mother to six children. How did you do it? Do you think it’s fair that women are always asked this, whereas men never are?
I don’t think it is all unnecessary asking women how they juggle. It is different for men and women. Having said that, it was easier as a partner than as an associate. You have more autonomy, compared to when you’re trying to climb the greasy pole and at everybody’s beck and call.
I had three kids under the age of three in the first four years of my career. Looking back I don’t know how I did it. You get used to low quality of life I suppose, used to very little sleep. I was a separated and pregnant mother of three when I was made partner. But then life got easier. I got the infrastructure I needed and I had a fantastic nanny for 15 years.
The reason I did was to do with career structure. I knew had a chance of partnership from four to seven PQE and that during that period I had to work flat out. So I knew I would have to children before that or after that.
It sounds very calculating but the career structure is almost a form of structural sexism. It doesn’t need to be that way. It couldn’t have been worse designed and is a hangover from when there weren’t any women.
I planned meticulously. I couldn’t have done anything I have done had I not been organised. I don’t know whether that is my nature or a necessity that I latched on to.
You left the Slaughters partnership, and the legal profession entirely, at the age of 43. Had that always been your plan?
No - I think it would have been really wrong to accept partnership if it had been. Ideally I would have left it longer but I had a feeling that society was still quite ageist - if I had left it until 54, my age now, people would have thought I wanted a twilight role.
I had six children and while deciding whether to leave I plotted their school stages on a matrix. I had two windows of opportunity; otherwise it would been very disruptive to their education. One window was when I was 43 and the other was nearer to 50.
Why did you leave Slaughter and May?
I wanted to find out if I could succeed all over again – it is very intriguing thing, testing out your ability to adapt to a new life. Rationally I knew it was a risk but somehow I never worried about that. I was just excited. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to carry on being a partner at Slaughter and May.
I had always thought I didn’t want to have one career and it was never my long-term goal to become a lawyer. I think a lot of successful lawyers accidentally become lawyers. I would always be slightly worried if that had always been someone’s dream from childhood.
You moved from the City to the Welsh countryside. How did you make sure that your transition to a new life was as smooth as it could be?
I gave myself permission to take time out. Having spent 20 years in an intense and very particular environment I needed a certain amount of decompression to normalise and see what I really wanted. I would tell people not to agree to do things too quickly. After retirement you need time to remember who you are and what you want.
As a family, we knew wanted a new sort of life. I have always been a keen gardener and vegetable grower and we wanted more space. You can’t get that in London and once you leave, you might as well move far out.
How did you decide what you wanted to do?
I knew never wanted to be a lawyer again. I don’t believe in going back and I have ended up moving so far away from what I was doing at Slaughter and May.
I went to horticultural college for two years and was headhunted by the Competition Commission. I wasn’t all that keen initially. I felt it was quite close to what I’d done before but I chaired about ten inquiries as deputy chairman and only recently stopped.
My roles now reflect my long-standing interests: I have taken on the role of values and ethics chair at the Cooperative Bank and I am a commissioner at the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The idea of doing business in a good way that you’re proud of has always interested me and I’m happy to say nothing I do now has a connection to law.
What has been your best decision?
To leave the City when I did. That is the decision I’m proudest of in my entire career. It wasn’t a hard decision but I did have six dependent children - it would have been easier to stay. Also, lots of people say they will do something like that and I did it with not a backwards look. It proved something to me: that my motivations in life are not money or prestige – if they were I would have stayed where I was.
There are too few lawyers who do other things. I think as a profession we have not been very successful at establishing that we are adaptable and can sit in other boardrooms. Lots of other professions manage it. You don’t have to be a solicitor forever - there are plenty of things you can do.
Do you have any regrets?
I would have liked to have been bolder in my own time in the City. In some ways I was very conformist. Early in your career you lack in confidence and don’t want to damage people’s perception of you.
There are many ways I could have worked in a more flexible way or cut myself more slack. I think the opportunity would have been there - you never know until you begin to push the envelope.
I wonder if I could perhaps have made it easer for other women - I always knew I might be looked to as I looked to others.
I also thought things would change more quickly than they have done. There were no female partners at Slaughters when I joined. The first woman to be made partner was Ruth Fox. When she was made partner I remember clearly thinking ‘Now it’s coming, things will change’. But they haven’t really. It is the 20 per cent tolerance phenomenon. We built a narrative and thought we would have to wait a generation. We got traction but then it plateaued.