Original interview held by Lina Runge for breaking.through, adapted and published with kind permission of breaking.through
Martina Farkas, LL.M., Maître en droit, partner in Corporate/M&A at Linklaters LLP in Hamburg, on her enthusiasm for working internationally, the courage to try things out, and her model for reconciling family and work.
Ms. Farkas, you recently became a partner in Corporate/M&A at Linklaters LLP in Hamburg. What does your day-to-day life as a business lawyer look like?
The nice thing is that there is no real everyday life. Every day is different. That is exactly what I enjoy about this job. It’s always very dynamic. I often write myself a to-do list for the next day in the evening to keep track of upcoming issues. When I get to the office the next day, I usually have to adjust this to-do list either because new inquiries are coming in or there are organizational issues in the office that need to be resolved immediately.
You have two small children. How do you organize everyday life with work and family?
Ultimately, it is always a balancing act between work and family. I have now found a very nice way. In our family, the morning is sacred; this is the time when we have rest and leisure together. The cell phone doesn’t ring, and I don’t make any appointments during this time. So we can get involved very well and spend time together intensively and sustainably. I think it’s important that you find times for yourself during the day that you spend exclusively with your family and other times with your job. During the day childcare is always a logistical challenge and plays an essential role. You can combine work and family. But it requires support—of whatever kind. It often happens with young children and international work that you have to have a plan B. In my opinion, you can’t do it all alone with a full-time position in the long term. I talk a lot with my husband about who is there and when. In addition, we also have family support. With this network, the balancing act works, and you remain flexible for an alternative plan that may be necessary during the day.
After the birth of both of your children, you decided to go back to full-time work. Do you have the impression that as a mother you often have to justify this decision?
Honestly, unfortunately, yes. I always have to justify my decision to work full-time. I am often asked why I work full-time when I have two small children. I think it’s still something that isn’t socially acceptable in Germany. We are currently still in a transformation process. I have a mother who has always worked full-time and still does today. I take it for granted that a mother should work full-time. Nevertheless, after the birth of both children, I questioned whether it was the right path for me. Because of the positive experiences of my mother and coaching sessions, I decided both times to return to work full-time. I wanted to try it myself. With this attitude I have never regretted anything. At the time, I didn’t know what it was like to work full-time with one or two children. Of course, I had already worked full-time before, but I still had sole control over the time available to me. Of course, I had imagined daily routine differently than they actually presented themselves. The motto here is “Trial and Error”! Nevertheless, I wish for my daughter that she will have to justify her decisions. However, I believe that it will take some time and only with the next generations who will hopefully push for a change, the “rethinking” will come.
In the preliminary talk you reported that you often hear from other women that the “expensive investment” in comprehensive childcare is not “worth it.” What do you mean by that, and why do you think this investment is “worth it”?
The investment is worthwhile because it is an investment in your own career. Many of my friends put all of the money they earn into childcare. This is undoubtedly a high financial outlay. And, of course, you can ask yourself whether it is worth investing almost your entire net income in childcare or whether you would rather stay at home with the children. That is of course a viable way, I don’t want to deny that! However, if you are striving for a specific career and are pursuing the goal of pursuing a specific job in the future as well, that is, when the children grow up, you should not just look at the current point in time. The money is invested in childcare to enable the mothers to continue their education and gain further professional experience.
Ultimately, you always have to weigh up for yourself how important it is to go along with the peer group with which you ventured to start your career. Promotions for lawyers usually take place between the ages of 30 and 40. For many lawyers, this coincides with the time when they start a family. In itself, it is not relevant for your own career whether you stay at home for two to three years and then return. The issue of childcare is, however, an issue that accompanies parents over a long period of time. The question of whether to go back to work at all, whether full-time or part-time or with different models, depending on the age of the children, certainly does not arise just once in a lifetime. There are different phases of life that may also require a different weighting of the profession. The others in the peer group who keep going without a break and don’t drop out for a few years are bound to reach their goals faster.
Is there a point in the career that is particularly suitable for lawyers to start a family?
There is no right time! This applies not only to a career in the international commercial law firm but also in general. It never fits, and yet it always fits. Some of my friends already had children during their legal clerkship. That was unimaginable for me at the time. Others of my colleagues wanted to first achieve their career goals and then devote themselves to family planning. Both are obviously possible ways. Much more important than when you start a family is to decide whether you want a family and children at all. If you answer yes to this question, you should continue to ask yourself where you want to go in life and whether you can imagine doing the job you are currently doing in the long term. The decisive factor is whether you have a partner who supports you. It won’t work without support. This is precisely the aspect of logistics that I addressed earlier. Just knowing that my children are in the best hands and that someone will look after them in my absence is what allows me to get involved in the work at all. This may all sound banal. However, there are important questions to think about before starting a family.
It is important to you to support young lawyers as a mentor. What is your advice to young lawyers who want to pursue a career in an international commercial law firm but do not want to give up their family?
The secret of success—however you want to define success in life—is to try things. The doubts expressed by the mentees as part of the mentoring program are repeated. They often ask themselves whether they should start a career in an international commercial law firm if they want to have a family and children later. They are afraid of treading unknown paths and what will happen if the different topics cannot be reconciled in the end. Of course, I had these thoughts too. Worrying that something isn’t working the way you imagined it doesn’t just affect the compatibility of family and career. With anything you do for the first time, my advice is to just try things out. It is only by trying that you can put your fears aside and overcome the obstacles that come your way. I grabbed almost every opportunity that came my way. Keeping your worries in mind completely blocks decision-making and keeps you from trying new things. And even if things go wrong and you fall down: get up again and keep going.
In mentoring, I always describe it as a moving car. The mentees are asked to imagine a car on a road that has a specific speed limit. The faster you drive, the faster you reach your destination. So why not drive at the speed limit for as long as possible? Either someone outside will tell you that you can’t go any further at this speed, or you’ll notice yourself on the way that driving straight ahead at top speed isn’t that much fun anymore. You then have the option of turning left or right. On the career path, you should not take your foot off the gas pedal without good reason. I think that as you keep going you open up a lot of opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise have had. In addition, you always have the option to turn right or left on your path. But letting off the gas before it is necessary is the wrong approach, in my opinion. We rarely try! The words of Sheryl Sandberg are “Don’t leave before you leave.” By that saying she pointed out that some women leave their career before they have even tried it. Just because of doubts whether it will work or not, they do not even try. This saying has had a huge impact on my life.
In the preliminary talk you mentioned that women in particular often underestimate their skills and thus stand in the way of their own careers. What do you mean by that?
In my observation, women in particular worry too much about whether they are qualified enough for the job or the project. As a result of these fears, they often do not face the challenges that would advance their careers. It doesn’t matter that you’ve done things before. It is much more important to trust yourself with new tasks. Especially with a view to technical aspects, there are always new topics. You can always work your way into these. You just have to trust yourself! We should stop only tackling projects when the circumstances are perfect. The circumstances will never be 100% perfect. In my opinion, this fear and the pursuit of perfection are also the reasons we have so few entrepreneurs in Germany. I advocate just getting started—even if everything isn’t perfect. In the beginning, you don’t need your own office space, the perfect business plan, or employees to start a company. It’s about having the courage to try things out! This applies to your entire life and not just to your own career. You rarely feel 100 percent prepared, and that was no different in state/bar exams. The motto here is also “Trial and Error!” In the end, regardless of the result, it is an—ideally beautiful—experience that you have personally grown from!
How did you deal with doubts about your career decisions?
Even today I still have doubts. I find that quite normal. What helps me immensely is talking to others about it. Depending on the topic, I talk to my family, colleagues, and/or friends. You are confronted with different views in these discussions, and then you recognize the options relatively quickly. In the end, however, you have to make the decision yourself. Ultimately, what matters is that you make a decision because even by not acting, you make a decision, namely a decision against change! When in doubt, I always decide to try it out. Sometimes that works well, and sometimes it doesn’t. But before I think about it forever, I’d rather try it.
Article originally published on the site breaking.through. The complete article can be viewed here: https://www.breakingthrough.de/portraet-martina-farkas
About Martina Farkas
Martina specializes in advising national and international companies and financial investors in the areas of M&A, private equity, joint ventures, and restructurings as well as general corporate law.
Martina is the cohead of the Transportation sector group at Linklaters LLP.
She is also a member of Linklaters’ German and international ESG working groups, where a cross-functional team closely follows the current developments around ESG and provides comprehensive advice to clients.
In its 2021 Best Lawyers Ranking, German Handelsblatt lists Martina as “One to Watch” in the category Corporate Law.
Martina regularly lectures at the euroforum on M&A contracts and is the Chairman of the Young Executives Network Northern Germany of the British Chamber of Commerce in Germany e.V.