We ask three of DLA Piper’s female M&A stars some of the most pressing questions currently facing women in the sector. Partners Tracey Renshaw, Laura Marcelli, and Victoria Rhodes answer below
In your opinion, what specific factors contribute to the under-representation of senior women in M&A, and what steps can be taken to address this imbalance?
Laura Marcelli: I think unconscious bias is still prevalent in M&A and some men (but not all) recruit talent in their own image. Young male junior associates often get more opportunities and when they perform well are picked again for the next deal. It is a cycle that I have seen repeated many times. We need to consciously encourage and welcome female juniors onto transactions, think about their career progression and focus on building their experience.
Tracey Renshaw: Choosing not to be an M&A lawyer would for many be a perfectly sensible choice. I expect there are not many M&A lawyers who have not felt that way at some point in their career. For anyone to become a senior M&A lawyer, the sense of achievement must outweigh the difficulties encountered and it seems that a lot of women have concluded that it does not.
The question is, therefore, how can women be better supported? Among a myriad of personal circumstances, I expect that most answers come down to empowering women to deliver in their own way, and providing due recognition when they do. Firms must be cognisant that women are often alone or in the minority and ensure that when they do speak they are heard and when they do contribute their contributions are valued.
Victoria Rhodes: It would be naïve not to acknowledge the impact of family responsibilities on women. The introduction and normalisation of flexible working practices has greatly helped address this challenge, although there is still work to be done (and to ensure that all parents feel empowered to find a balance which works for them).
In the last five years, what would you say are the most significant changes for women in M&A, both at DLA Piper and in the field generally?
Tracey Renshaw: Women in M&A no longer work for a predominantly male client base and as the composition of client teams evolves there is a natural transition in law firms to also build more diverse teams. This is being accelerated by an increasing preference by clients to work with diverse teams. This, in turn, feeds into an acceptance by law firms that diversity and inclusion is a business imperative. I am optimistic that the increasing prevalence of diverse client and law firm teams is removing some of the barriers to women winning work and managing significant client relationships.
Laura Marcelli: Covid has been a huge leveller. Pre-Covid, I remember the stressful dash back to pick up my daughter from nursery and dreading urgent client calls coming in at the point when I really needed to leave the office. Now, we are all accustomed to working from home and many of us actually work better on close work in a quieter environment. So in some respects, the juggling act has become easier, but this brings with it fresh challenges for training more junior members in a hybrid environment.
Victoria Rhodes: While in recent years, the percentage of women taking up senior level positions in M&A has increased, albeit slowly, at the more junior level the figures are more balanced, which is encouraging and will hopefully begin to have an impact at senior levels too. Gone are the days of walking into a dealmakers event and having a maximum of one female per table.
What steps can firms take to create a more inclusive and supportive environment for women in M&A, both at the senior level and throughout the pipeline?
Laura Marcelli: We need to actively encourage our female junior associates to get exposure to deals, as this is the environment where you develop and refine many of your skills.
We also need to realise that confidence needs to be developed in some people more than others and be empathetic to that fact. Some need support to tap into the talent that lies beneath. We need to get away from the traditional ‘Alpha male’ culture historically prevalent in M&A.
Tracey Renshaw: While this is seemingly a straightforward question, it is a very difficult one to answer as the steps taken over time have not so far addressed the imbalance in representation at senior levels. It is important that the question of diversity is regularly asked as it is dangerous to assume that anyone feels included and supported or, indeed, they do not. Reward and recognition are key.
Victoria Rhodes: It would help to introduce more diversity into both internal and client events to ensure greater inclusivity. Not everybody feels comfortable or wants to go to traditionally male-influenced drinking or sports events – something which is reflective of our clients. That is not to say that all events need to take the same format but it is good to offer a balance.
Who have been your own personal mentors in your career, and what did they do to encourage your career?
Victoria Rhodes: While there are many more I could name, it is interesting to reflect that the three people who have given me the most support and proved to be the biggest influence on me are male which highlights the importance of male allies in addressing diversity. Jon Hayes has been a fantastic mentor – he is someone who is genuinely passionate about diversity and inclusion in all its forms and leads by example. Andrew Davies for his support in working flexibly allowing me to prioritise my young family. Tom Heylen for consistently including me in growing client relationships and encouraging sector focus.
Laura Marcelli: Our senior partner, Jon Hayes, championed me from before I joined DLA. In particular, he supported my desire to work a four-day working pattern when my children were pre-school age. He also was in my corner when I was balancing the partnership process with treatment for cancer which was a particularly challenging time in my life. Jon Kenworthy, our UK head of corporate, has also been a very important mentor to me: he is calm, unflappable and very fair.
Tracey Renshaw: The individuals who have most influenced my career have been those who have valued my opinion and/or provided me with support. I have a clear recollection of those times when I have felt valued and supported and they have proven to be turning points in my career. On a day-to-day basis, work friendships are invaluable.
Are there any specific trends or shifts in the M&A landscape that you believe will create new opportunities for senior women professionals?
Tracey Renshaw: Areas of law which were not previously central to M&A, such as warranty and indemnity insurance, sanctions, foreign direct investment, foreign subsidies regulation, data protection, cyber security and ESG, require all M&A lawyers to build and manage broader teams. New areas of law always create space for M&A lawyers to build new relationships and leverage the expertise of others in the firm and these opportunities can be seized upon by men and women alike.
Laura Marcelli: As M&A becomes ever more specialised, new niches emerge where women can stand out from the crowd as subject matter experts. This has certainly been the case for me with warranty and indemnity insurance. But opportunities will also arise from AI and ESG concerns, the latter prompted by increasing regulatory scrutiny, such as greenwashing investigations, which could impact on deal certainty.
Victoria Rhodes: Future M&A leaders will need to have a more specialist focus which opens up new opportunities for women by providing another platform for them to demonstrate their knowledge and skillsets. Clients are increasingly looking for lawyers who can partner with them, understand their business and industry and discuss issues with a very commercial view.