How to progress as a woman in law
More women than ever are entering the legal profession, but they are still outnumbered in senior roles. You need to be aware of the barriers and prepared for the challenge if you want to achieve your ambitions.
Women have just edged ahead of men in numbers making the grade to enter the legal profession. Yet there remains a disproportionate number of men in the top jobs. Unless you believe men suddenly become more capable than women after a few years in the job, you have to face the fact that there are gender inequalities. Some still argue that women don’t want the top jobs, despite recent research across FTSE 100 companies showing this doesn’t ring true.
Beating the odds
As a woman, if you’re hoping to reach the top in a city law firm or you’re aspiring to be a QC, the odds are definitely stacked against you. The truth is wherever your ambitions lie, you’ll face additional challenges throughout your career. You’ll need to be single-minded and determined, plan ahead and set yourself goals. It will certainly help if you're working in an area of law that you’re going to find satisfying and challenging for the long haul.
A number of ‘how to’ books written by successful business women suggest that showing more confidence and taking more risks go a long way to changing perceptions. Working on your assertiveness isn’t a bad idea, but there are limits to what you can do all by yourself to overcome a biased system.
An ex-colleague of mine commented that because women lawyers now outnumber men, he no longer saw the need for women’s professional associations. There may be equality at point of entry, but there is still much to do to enable women to access the top jobs. Thankfully there are a number of organisations that campaign, contribute to consultations and produce research to counter overt and unconscious gender bias. Some of these, including Women in Law, The Women’s Division of the Law Society and The Association of Women Barristers, are specifically for lawyers, while others such as The 30% Club have a broader remit.
Many of these groups offer professional development, as well as social events that offer great networking opportunities. Making contacts with fellow professionals is invaluable. Any successful lawyer will tell you that building relationships is as important as technical knowledge. As a solicitor, your early career may seem to be centred on generating fees, but you will have to find some time to work on building rapport with clients and co-workers. Barristers also need to develop successful professional relationships with clerks, solicitors and other colleagues.
I haven’t yet mentioned parental leave and childcare, which of course are the biggest challenges women face in terms of career advancement. The act of going on maternity leave and not being at work means you miss up to a year of on-the-job experience and contact with clients. For barristers, being self-employed also means you lose out financially.
However, the major career derailment happens when you attempt to return to work. If you have ample support from a co-parent, family or paid-for help, it is possible to return full time, but many women will need or want more flexible hours. The challenge is most big law firms are not set up for this – certainly not in senior roles. Even those with policies promoting this in principle often don’t manage to provide it in practice. Client demand and market pressure are given as the main barriers. There are options for part-time roles, but these will usually be less senior, in smaller firms, or in-house.
As a barrister, court hours and travelling make it difficult to introduce much flexibility into your role. There are employed barrister roles that offer more part-time hours if you’re willing to accept lower pay.
Change is happening
If any of this is making you think about switching careers, don’t despair. There are more women entering legal professions than ever before, and the female voice is being heard. Women who do reach the top are supporting those coming after them – busting a long-held myth that they don’t. There are still some dinosaurs at the top, but remember that most men are not misogynists. Law firms and chambers are now more open to change and recognise that flexible working, offered to all, benefits men as well as women. There are still many challenges to achieving true equality, but at least things are moving slowly in the right direction.