Legal Business Blogs

Comment: Women redefining City law – a few teachable moments and the odd necessary evil

When high-profile GCs still talk of being mistaken for a PA (as BT’s Sabine Chalmers was not that long ago), it’s a reminder of how much more progress needs to be made to clear the path to the top for women in law.

Yes, there has been improvement over the last ten years. According to the panel of female partners and in-house speakers taking part in last month’s Legal Business/Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer reception championing women in law, the grip of the boy’s club in the City is loosening. Slowly.

While women are exposed to less blatant harassment and marginalisation in the workplace than even five years ago, the striking lack of diversity at the upper echelons of the profession highlights how little change there has been in private practice.

True, the situation is very different at in-house teams, which are the direct beneficiaries of law firms haemorrhaging talented mid-level associates for careers that offer more autonomy and recognition. While it’s easy to imagine that in a decade female GCs in the FTSE 100 will outnumber men, leading law firms will be lucky to get to 30% female partnership ratios by then.

Insight on what these dynamics mean came from our all-star panel at The Ned in late November in a debate in front of more than 80 guests. Our panellists – Chalmers, Freshfields partner Natasha Good, Funding Circle GC Lucy Vernall, Travers Smith partner Lucie Cawood and CVC legal head Lauren Livingston – put forward a range of thoughts which will be fully reported in the next issue of Legal Business.

Ahead of that, here is some of their key advice for aspiring female lawyers:

  1. Have faith in your own abilities. Male dominance is not the only obstacle women face: imposter syndrome is a reality for many women – even some of the most successful.
  2. Don’t feel you need to fundamentally change who you are to succeed. Partners, GCs and law-firm leaders have many different styles and experiences.
  3. Do self promote – it may be an evil of modern business life but it’s a necessary evil.
  4. When there are difficulties, take control of what you can change yourself and don’t wait for the company/a white knight to fix things for you.
  5. Build a support network and ask for help when you need it.
  6. Don’t take everything on to prove yourself – it will be taken for granted and soon forgotten anyway. Instead, learn to prioritise and delegate. High-flying careers require work on high-impact projects.
  7. Find a role model or mentor – male or female. Men can have a big positive impact on your career, whether that’s colleagues championing you internally or husbands or partners putting their own career on the back burner to look after children.
  8. Clients and law firms remain in a stand off on the related issues of gender diversity, flexible working and deadlines. The profession will only move past that if there is frank dialogue and compromises on both sides. For example, GCs should accept that discounted business-as-usual work should come with more flexible expectations on response times. Law firms, meanwhile, should get better at providing genuine team-coverage for key clients, rather than deferring to one or two senior-lawyer contacts who cannot always be available.

What remains clear is that this debate is far from over and that patience among younger lawyers with the pace of progress is fast running out. Let’s all do better.