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Comment: Law firms will never just hand status to City women – they’ll have to take it

In a blow for traditionalists, our latest cover feature eschews profiling a group of hard-working, smart, highly-confident men who are talented lawyers to instead profile a group of hard-working, smart, variably-confident women who are talented lawyers. Radical stuff.

But then the career cycle for too many ambitious female deal lawyers remains nasty, brutish and short. While women increasingly advance into senior roles in advisory practice areas and even more so among the ranks of senior general counsel, in the upper reaches of transactional law, it is still a boys’ club and anyone claiming differently does not know many corporate lawyers.

Even gauging in a meaningful sense how many women have established themselves at the top-end of M&A, finance and private equity is tough because it often involves asking male peers for their views. The idea for the feature was triggered by one senior partner marvelling that a number of his top transactional performers were women, while the industry goes on citing male colleagues who are  – how to put this? – past their prime.

Seeking to redress that bias – for which we are partly to blame – the hunt began, and went on and on. Women lawyers take so much more coaxing than men! Reliable contacts were hit up, favours called in, tyres kicked and approaching 60 interviews conducted over a number of weeks. In total, we highlighted 21 lawyers alongside a wider band of notable women practitioners. While inevitably a few talents will have slipped the collection, what emerges is a credible picture of partners to rank among the City’s best.

How much talent is there? There has been some progress. You could argue that women account for between one in ten and one in five of the most effective transactional lawyers in the City but not credibly above that number.

And while attitudes in the City towards flexible working and female representation are more enlightened, the shift towards winner-takes-all compensation and mobile stars has pushed in other directions. It is widely accepted that the lateral hiring market heavily favours men making unrealistic pledges over women aiming to under-promise and over-deliver. The calls to include female candidates when recruiting partners typically still end with the same pool of men appointed. Still, as a visible pool of talented senior female lawyers emerges, the expectation must be that these women start to encourage, finesse and prod for change. Because if the profession cannot even accommodate women who make up more than half its junior ranks and much of its clients, what hope is there to modernise
in any other regard?

But at the risk of mansplaining, let me finish on a constructive suggestion. This is a people business and deal lawyering especially so. Some associates and young partners fail to grasp that the best performers – the Boardmans, Jacobs, Rawlinsons and Glovers – generally market relentlessly to industry circles, clients, peers and selected media. Not because they lack substance but because if you compete at the highest level, you want any edge. So there is room for the emerging band of female partners to ditch some of that understatement, eagerness to fit in and grab a little more of the limelight. Power, status and achievement in careers are rarely just handed over, they have to be assumed. Demanded even. Why not now?

Click here to see ‘Alphas’, our in-depth focus on the City’s female deal stars (£)