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Rafaella Felthun is an intellectual property specialist and first-time parent to a 12-week-old daughter. At this stage in her career, she’s at the pointy end of a changing working environment that will level the playing field for legal professionals who don’t want to be forced into a choice between a career or a family.

What led you to a career in law?

Funnily enough, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer after watching (American comedy movie) Legally Blonde when I was younger. I guess I got such satisfaction from (the lead character’s) cross examination and the way she proved the witness was lying – I thought that’s something I would like to do. It wasn’t a true reflection of what being a lawyer is, but luckily I love the job anyway!

You have a Bachelor of Science in Microbiology as well as your law degree – that’s an interesting combination.

When it came to choosing the double degree, I was advised to do something I was interested in. I actually wanted to do journalism, but I was told to choose something I’d want to write about and that happened to be science. That has led me into intellectual property law, and patent law in particular. I do a lot of work with pharmaceutical companies, so having that degree has been really useful for understanding what is quite a technical field.

You’re currently taking parental leave after having your first child 12 weeks ago. Have you stepped back completely?

I’m not working as such, but I was given the option to be copied in to emails with no pressure or obligation attached. I chose to do so because I love my job – that doesn’t stop when you go on parental leave. I was invested in the cases and the matters I was working on, so when I have the opportunity it’s good to be able to watch from the sidelines.

Your generation is at the vanguard of a new way of managing that balance between home and working life. How do you think things have changed even in the past few years?

I’m so grateful to have this time with my daughter. Taking care of a newborn isn’t easy, so I’m also grateful it’s my only job right now! Also, the industry has recently changed parental leave policies and the landscape is very different now. My firm, KWM, was one of the first to implement an increase in parental leave to 26 weeks. Another change that was particularly beneficial for me is that there’s now no service requirement – previously, with a lot of policies, you had to work for one or more years before you were eligible. That meant I was able to move to KWM when the opportunity arose unexpectedly while I was pregnant.

How have these kinds of changes helped to level the playing field for parents, particularly women, in the legal profession?

They allow women to pursue opportunities regardless of their circumstances. The other important change to parental leave is that the new policies apply whether you’re a primary or secondary carer, and whether you’re the birth-giver or not. That’s one of the best things they can do for what was previously a women’s issue. The more people who are encouraged to take the time out, the more the playing field is levelled and the more the potential for discrimination against one particular group is removed.

The more people who are encouraged to take the time out, the more the playing field is levelled and the more the potential for discrimination against one particular group is removed.

Are there still barriers for parents to overcome in accessing that level playing field?

We have a long way to go, and it’s still early days. There’s still a mentality among some in the industry that you never do anything that might be perceived as detracting from your work and dedication to clients – you never mention your home life, you never put your “out of office” message on.  We still have a long way to go in challenging that mentality and making people believe they can have a life outside work. It’s getting better every day, so finding that right culture is super important. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by people who have been through it before and are making it work. They’ve been really supportive and it’s been really inspiring to be in an environment like that.

The pandemic was a curse in so many ways, but has it also been a blessing in terms of the way we now approach the professional working environment?

Absolutely. The legal industry is a very traditional one. Going back a few years, it was very difficult to work from home – it was all about being present. The pandemic forced us to change the way we work. It proved a perfect example for the way our profession will, I’m hoping, adapt even further to accommodate people’s individual needs, particularly around parents and families.

What would be your advice to those in the legal profession who are considering a family, now or in the future?

Good question. Being in a supportive working environment to begin with is invaluable. Try to find that tribe. Surround yourself with people who have similar values who can help you along the way and make sure you can pursue your previous goals.

And don’t feel you need to hold back or compromise. The way we work is changing, and the more of us who talk about these things and go down the path we choose, the easier it will be for people in future.