I am also a Trustee of Progress Educational Trust, a charity that advances public understanding of science, law and ethics in the fields of human genetics, assisted reproduction and stem cell research.
I grew up in a sleepy seaside town on the West coast of Wales and had an idyllic, if not a little boring, childhood by the sea. Whilst I love going home to visit my family in Wales, and am as patriotic as they come, from an early age I always knew that I wanted “the London life”. Watching ‘This Life’ in the 90’s probably helped with that! In a conversation with a friend from primary school recently he said, “you ALWAYS said from year 7 that you had high ambitions…and look at you now”.
I often look back and wonder how I achieved those lofty ambitions I set for myself. I was the first in my family to go to university, the last cohort where the fees were paid for by the Council. Three years later I had my BA but no idea what to do with it. I then went back to university and graduated in 2002 achieving my Law LLB. The LPC followed (after a year out to sort my finances), then a training contract (achieved by the skin of my teeth in the last week of the LPC) in a high street practice in Uxbridge. I have to say, that I never felt any kind of gender bias or experienced less preferential treatment on account of my sex during this academic phase of my career. For me, I worked hard, and I achieved what I set out to achieve.
Qualification came in 2006 and at my party to celebrate I was surrounded by family and friends, all proud of me for achieving my goal and I was ecstatic that I had finally reached the summit of that hard slog and qualified as a solicitor at age 27. That ecstasy was soon replaced by imposter syndrome as a newly qualified solicitor. I often felt out of my depth and I’m not ashamed to admit that there were some tears!
But I buckled up and worked hard and within 2 years I was starting at Levison Meltzer Pigott and I had basically hit the jackpot. I spent 9 happy years working with the best of the best. Jeremy Levison took me under his wing, and I was so privileged to work alongside him and all the other partners. It was whilst at LMP that I became a mother. I was 37 and thankfully had had no issues either getting pregnant or giving birth. And whilst I was fully supported by the firm, as the breadwinner in my family, I was unable to take my full maternity leave entitlement and returned to work after 12 weeks. That was tough. I put in a request for part time on a temporary basis, and happily this was granted for six months and then extended by another six months. Balancing a demanding legal career as a new mum was not easy but I savoured those Fridays off to enjoy some baby time.
Sadly, my second pregnancy ended in miscarriage with near fatal complications. This traumatic experience was life-changing. Unable to conceive again, I was now familiar with the world of infertility. After a career break to take stock and heal, I dived back into London life and began working on surrogacy and fertility law cases at a new firm. This was a lightbulb moment where I felt like I had found my true calling. This area of law fascinates me and helping people create their families gives me an enormous sense of pride and professional satisfaction.
Having suffered infertility myself and being a female in the legal profession where I remembered the worry that getting pregnant causes, and now the worry that not being able to get pregnant causes, I wanted to tackle the culture where women feel they have to keep these issues secret for fear of it affecting one’s career.
Somaya Ouazzani, CEO and founder of Mimoza Fleur, and I got together and shared our own experiences and decided that we would use our voices to highlight this issue. I am a fairly introverted person, and my frequent imposter syndrome makes me very shy and not wanting any kind of attention, but I felt passionately that to change this culture, we need female voices, and we need to share our stories so that we understand that we are not alone and if we are having fertility struggles, it isn’t shameful.
Having shared my story with my partners at Burgess Mee and my ambition to create a more open working culture for law firm employees, particularly female solicitors who may want children alongside their career, the role of the fertility officer was born. The partners were fully behind the idea of the culture shift and have since created fertility and pregnancy loss policies which I know are going to help shift that stigma and support our employees in their family building aspirations.
On 6 December 2021, Somaya and I organised and hosted an in-person panel event in the offices of Sidley Austen which we called In/Fertility in the City. We had six incredible women on the panel, from magic circle law firms, in-house counsel and a fertility coach all share about their experiences of infertility, pregnancy loss and involuntary childlessness and how these issues impacted their physical and mental health as well as how it impacted on their working life. Somaya and I were so proud to bring this event to the city and already we are noticing the ripple effect where the attendees have gone back to their own firms to raise these issues and the recent media attention that I received regarding the fertility officer role has meant that it has started a national conversation about fertility issues at work.
As Lady Hale says, “women are equal to everything” and I truly believe that women should have the same opportunities as men in everything. But in relation to fertility, pregnancy and motherhood, the reality is that this can significantly impact on a woman’s career progression. This is usually the stage where we see the men overtake us in terms of promotion and pay. Great women are leaving the profession because it is sometimes impossible to square the circle. While this conundrum has no easy answers, creating a wholescale culture shift where women feel supported by their employers when it comes to family building and returning to work after pregnancy is a great place to start.
Natalie Sutherland is a family law solicitor and partner at Burgess Mee Family Law.