Here at Obelisk we are always interested to meet lawyers-turned-entrepreneurs and are delighted to have had to opportunity to talk to Sarah-Jane Butler, now CEO of Parental Choice. Having qualified at a Magic Circle law firm and worked for over 10 years in the City, she set up her own business in 2011 to help working parents achieve a better work – life balance whilst handling the challenges of juggling a career and childcare responsibilities. Here is why we are celebrating this lawyer turned entrepreneur:
Sarah-Jane, tell us a little about your background
I studied French and German at university and then converted to law, doing my training contract at a Magic Circle law firm. I qualified into capital markets and securitisation, and spent over 10 years in the UK and overseas before settling down and getting married in the UK. I was happily on the partnership track and loved the buzz of fast-moving city life. The work I did was intense but enjoyable, more or less. In 2011, I had my second child and at that point the work- life balance became very difficult and I took some time out to assess what I wanted as a mother and as a lawyer.
What does Parental Choice do and why did you set it up?
In 2011, I was reliably informed by a partner in the firm I was working for that if I was serious about my career and trying to combine that with children, I would need a day and night nanny, and perhaps a creche for my children at the weekends.
It was clear that the firm I was working for, whilst they were keen to have me back, were not set-up to offer any support or advice to enable me to do this and I was expected to manage by myself. The stress was hard to deal with. I realised at that point that parents needed to be supported, both mentally and practically, by their employers. To expect employees to be as productive as possible, whilst also managing a home life and the stresses that everyday life imposes without providing support was unrealistic. There is a reason why so many employees, women in particular, look for a new career direction after having children.
Parental Choice was born out of recognising this need. I wanted to help other working parents with the minefield of childcare options, and offer them ongoing support through wellbeing talks dedicated to parents and the issues they may face – child anxiety, preparing them for school, dealing with technology or sleep techniques.
The business started trading in 2011, at the same time as I retrained as an employment lawyer. On the one hand, I wanted to help parents find the care they needed for their children, whether that was a nursery, nanny, childminder or school, and if they employed a nanny make sure they had the payroll and legal support they needed to become an employer. On the other hand, I wanted to offer these services as a benefit to employees through their employers, thus showing that employers recognised the stress often caused by trying to find the right childcare to fit working hours.
What are the services now offered by Parental Choice?
Parental Choice has grown over the past nine years. It now provides practical support services for businesses and families in relation to sourcing both reliable childcare and elements of elder care. In addition, it offers employers with wellbeing programmes for its working parents and carers with access to experts experienced in a range of areas such as mental health, education and parenting. Its vision is to be an international trusted wellbeing provider making a difference to the lives of our clients’ employees and private clients. In fact, we also have an established EMEA practice offering help to families who are relocating within EMEA find childcare or education options.
Our key values are Care, Expertise, Empathy and Diligence so whether we are dealing with employers, big or small, or individual parents, we try our best to make sure they get the right information and support for them.
How do you feel your legal background has helped you become a lawyer turned entrepreneur?
Of course, my background as a city lawyer means I have a good understanding of business and am very commercially aware. More importantly, I feel that an appreciation of customer service has been instilled in me through my practice as a lawyer, which has led to me building my business with customers at the centre of what we do.
What advice would you offer to anybody thinking of setting up a business?
Be prepared to do everything! As a law firm fee earner, I had lots of people around to help. Now I have to wear a lot of hats, including IT support and HR, but I have also been known to vacuum, run a duster over my desk and do the photocopying. I would also recommend retraining and being relevant. I was a City lawyer, so when setting up Parental Choice, I recognised that offering legal advice to parents who are employing nannies would be beneficial. With this goal in mind, I retrained in employment law.
Find a niche, get relevant and stay relevant.
What about that work – life balance, have you achieved this?
In a manner of speaking, yes. I probably work as hard as I did before but this time it is on my terms. I work around my family rather than trying to fit them around my work.
I have a great management team, who are also all mothers, who recognise the importance of work – life balance for themselves and their teams as well. The company itself has won several awards for its flexible working strategy (for example: working hours are 9-3) and its focus on working parents, including being named in 2015 by Working Families as one of the top ten SMEs to work for. In 2019, I was named as one of “We Are The City’s Rising Star Champions” for making a difference to the workplace for female employees. These awards are important as it shows that Parental Choice practices what it preaches and benefits its own employees as it aims to help its clients help its employees.
One last word from you, Sarah-Jane
I really believe in work/life balance and achieving the best solution for you. I try and practice this within my business and encourage my team to be flexible and put their lives first. Childcare traditionally is inflexible so I would actively encourage employers to give consideration to flexible working requests and look at what else they can do to support their employees practically and emotionally; the fact that Obelisk Support exists and helps lawyers to work flexibly is such an amazing step forward.