0370 1500 100

Anita Jewitt - Inspirational Women in Law 2017 Submission

How can women shape the future of the legal industry?

In considering how women can shape the future of the legal industry, we should reflect on how much has been achieved in the past century. The first bill introduced relating to women in the legal profession was the Barristers and Solicitors (Qualification of Women) Bill in February 1919 (ultimately rendered unnecessary by the Sex Disqualification Act). Lord Buckmaster remarked “nobody thinks that the passage of this bill is going to flood the legal profession with women. It will enable a few women, who are peculiarly qualified, to earn an honourable living.”   

Lord Buckmaster’s predictions were, fortunately, very much mistaken.  Fast forward to 2017, and at graduate level, women are outperforming men, both in terms of the degree classifications being obtained, and in the number of women graduating.  So we have a significant (and majority) pool of female graduates entering the profession. 

The trend continues to the point of qualification, with 62% of newly qualified solicitors being women, up from 53% in 2000/2001.   However, the difference between proportions of men and women represented at partner level in private practice remains substantial: 41.7% of men versus 18.8% of women. Although huge strides have been made, female partner levels remain unacceptably low.  For women to shape the future of the legal profession, they must be represented at all levels.  This must be seen as a priority if we are to deliver a legal service which properly represents the society we serve. 

There are no tangible barriers for women in law, so why is it that so few women are reaching the top positions?   What happens (or does not happen) between qualification and making partner that means this figure is so disparate?  Of all practising solicitors, 31% are aged 35 or under, and almost two-thirds of this group are women, so this should not be seen as an issue facing just a few. 

I am very fortunate to work for an inclusive and progressive firm, having been promoted to partner when I was 7 years qualified and whilst on maternity leave with my first child.  One set of twins later, and I am now a mother to 3 children under the age of 3.  In reflecting on my career so far, whilst hard work and achieving results was certainly part of the story, I may not have achieved partnership so quickly had it not been for the support and sponsorship of my supervising (female) partner.

My firm set up a gender networking and support group and regularly invite speakers to reflect on their own experiences and challenges they have faced in their careers.  These talks have been fundamental in helping me give consideration to issues such as my childcare options, and day to day tips on juggling work and family life.  If we are to shape the future of the profession, then mentoring, leadership and sharing of experiences will be key.

Businesses need to identify why we have not achieved gender equality within the top positions, and implement strategies to ensure that retention rates amongst women lawyers remain high.  Significant expense is incurred by firms in attracting and training graduates – after all, we work in an industry built on people.

Experience dictates that the best team is made up of a diverse group of individuals, each bringing their own perspective and unique skillset to the table.   Great teams and strong leadership equate to motivated and successful lawyers and this will inevitably follow through to the bottom line.  

Many firms are losing talented women when they are around 8 years qualified and approaching partnership. Often, this point in their lives also coincides with starting a family.  Sheryl Sandberg said “careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder”, and this should apply in law, which still has a rigid career path and it is one aspect of the future of law which women can shape.

For example, women may decide to postpone applying for partnership whilst their children are young, and then pursue these career aspirations at a time that better suits their family dynamic.  Firms should not equate these proactive decisions with a lack of ambition.  In supporting women in this way, they will retain talented lawyers for the long term.

We need more senior female role models working flexibly to show that flexible and part time working won’t impact negatively on partnership prospects.  Balancing home and family life is tough for both genders, so setting up these communication channels will benefit men and women alike.  We shouldn’t feel as though we need to make the “career versus family” choice every day at the office.  ‘Staying late = today I have put my career first.  Leaving to get home for bathtime = today I have put my family first’. There seems to be a sense of inevitability that you cannot make partner and have a family life.  Both men and women need to be involved in strategic decisions in terms of how law firms can be run to ensure that gender inequality doesn’t stop the very talented and deserving from making it to the top. 

Technology will almost certainly reduce inefficiencies that take up a disproportionate amount of time in the office – granting us more time in the working day to achieve results and work towards securing that work/life balance.  However, we need to be proactive in managing technology, and our time, to ensure it is not an invasion on our home life.   

Ultimately, women can shape the future of the legal industry if we lead by example – being role models, encouraging and supporting their peers, being innovative and pushing boundaries within their firms to lead as the catalyst for change.  As Henry Ford said, “coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success”.  The industry must work together so that in the next 10 (and not 100) years, the statistics paint a very different picture.