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LCN Says

Disability and inclusion: Q&A with Gowling WLG’s Simon Stephen

updated on 10 May 2022

Tell us a bit about your role at Gowling

I'm a director in the employment labour and equalities team and joined Gowling WLG (UK) LLP in the summer of 2019. I did however train, and qualify, at Wragge & Co and left in 2014 for in an-house HR role at Deutsche Bank. For various reasons a move back to private practice and Gowling suited me and I now focus on the team's employee relations, financial services, whistleblowing and investigations work. These cover a wide variety of people issues, and law, and are growing areas for us. It's great to use the in-house experience as we push to get more work.

"It took me an inordinate length of time to accept and understand my own mental health issues."

What influenced your decision to pursue your chosen career?

I sort of fell into it. I started off thinking about working with languages, and I did law and French at university as I wanted something 'solid' to back up a pure linguistics degree. While studying I really enjoyed the analytical and problem-solving side of law which led me to vacation schemes and to think about a career in law. I chose employment law as it's a real combination of technical legal skills and other skills needed to understand people.

What have been the most rewarding experiences so far in your career?

It is difficult to single any specific experiences out but the overarching rewarding experience is being able to help businesses get things right for them and their employees, and to fix problems. When I was in house I set up a mental health support network with mental health champions – and it's brilliant to see that now flourish and be a key priority for them. I'm a long forgotten key part of that but it does give me a warm glow to think about it and the role I played.

What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome these challenges?

It took me an inordinate length of time to accept and understand my own mental health issues. I have anxiety and depression which I must manage carefully. When I do, I honestly believe that because it is part of who I am, it actually helps me be good at my job. The only way I can do that though is to both be open – in a constructive way – with those that need to know and also be kind to myself.

It's taken a long time and some hard lessons on that way but I'm pretty good now at knowing what I need to do, and when, and the key people in my life are pretty good at spotting when I'm not. A linked challenge is balancing being a parent with work and looking after myself. My wife and I split parental stuff pretty much down the middle and it does throw up regular challenges. Perhaps the biggest is fitting it all in while feeling that you are doing it all badly. In the same way as with my mental health I choose to be open about it and remember to give myself a break. I find the mental health champions network really valuable for that and helping find the perspective, plus frank conversations with myself, family and team!

"Listen to people, take time to understand their perspective and take time to explain yours."

What is your top tip for ensuring a truly inclusive workplace?

Listen to people, take time to understand their perspective and take time to explain yours. We all see things differently based on who we are and our own identities.

What advice would you give your younger self, knowing what you know now?

Find a way to speak up. There is usually always a way to do so safely and constructively or to find help through other means first.

A few years ago, I used an employee assistance programme (EAP) helpline for parenting counselling when we had difficulties with one of my kids. Once I had articulated the problem and had a bit of help from them, I was able to go to my manager and talk it through. As I result, I ended up with changed working hours and arrangements, and my manager wondering why I hadn't asked before. Many years down the line and I still work flexibly and everyone knows why. Same for my mental health – I broke down in a meeting room and poured it all out to a partner. The upshot from that was that I received the help I needed and ended up coming back to work with that very person around eight years later!

How do you balance work and home life?

Personally, I think that you can't do this unless you first know yourself and what makes you tick, and second that those you work with do as well. I don't mean sitting at your desk in lycra to show that you are a keen cyclist (sorry) but by being open and informative. There is a role for everyone and I think it links to what I've said on inclusion – we need to be able to be ourselves in a professional context too. Once we are then we can make the right choices, and decisions, for ourselves and others.

Diary co-ordination is also key in our household! Forward planning as best as possible means I can carve out time for what is important. It also gives me a clear framework that helps with my anxiety too as I am much better able to deal with the curve balls that get thrown in (you know things like client needs, supervising an urgent matter, a sick child or missing the fact it's a fancy dress day at school…).

Simon Stephen is a legal director at Gowling WLG (UK) LLP.

Visit LCN’s Diversity hub, sponsored by Gowling, for more on what the firm is doing to create a diverse and inclusive workplace.