I am Alexia Savar, a 22-year old Paralegal at Bailoran Solicitors studying my Masters in Law degree at Northumbria University. As I look around the lecture theatre, there appears to be more female than male students reading Law. This is reflected in Birmingham’s Law Schools research evidencing 67% of University entrants are female. In addition, The Law Society’s Annual Statistics Report of 2017 revealed that there are now more women than men qualified and practising Law in the UK. However the same report revealed that only 28% of partners in the UK are female. But why?
Whilst entering my fourth and final year of studies I need to take into consideration views that try to answer this question as it may affect my future legal career as a woman. In this article I have canvassed the opinion of both men and women in successful practices to try and gain an insight into the structure and hierarchy of a solicitor’s workplace in an attempt to discover why the statistics don’t correlate.
The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 illegalised all discrimination due to sex or marriage within England and Wales. However, it is concerning that according to The Law Society’s Women in Law Survey, 60% of solicitors are aware of a gender pay gap within their workplace to the detriment of women.
Ann Page (Director, Trainer, Coach and Author at Yorkshire Courses for Lawyers) explained her experiences as a female trying to fulfil her career aspirations:
“In my first role working for a bank in the late 70s I was told I was not promoted because I was a woman”.
Ann overcame this type of prejudice to become recognised as a Top 100 Lawyer, write two books and is starting her third. She believes the reason for more male Partners currently is due to the culture of the legal profession also sometimes lagging behind the times. That culture being one where women are encouraged to stay at home and raise children having started a family whilst the man continues to work and progress their career.
Keith Williams (Practice Manager at Bailoran Solicitors) believes that traditionally:
“Following a lengthy training/qualification period, at the point a woman has gained enough experience/fee earning to be considered for Partner, they may also be thinking about having a family. Historically this will have involved extended time off and a probable change of focus with less time to dedicate to the workplace”
This suggests that the number of male partners may not be due to discrimination but due to the needs of a business. Gender happens to create a circumstance which is costly for a legal business if a woman wants a family as it normally involves a career break for women resulting in no fee earning whilst still remaining a cost as an employee.
My research shows we may be in a rapid period of change though. Interestingly, Laura Clapton (Solicitor & Director at Consilia Legal) explains that struggles within her legal career haven’t been due to gender but due to her youth and is proud that “more women are reaching the top and sharing their stories”. In terms of childcare, Laura believes:
“The more men that share parental leave with their female partner and part-time working the less emphasis employers will put on employing and promoting females of a certain ages based upon assumptions that they will be the ones to take time off work to care for their children”.
Clapton explains that “[Consilia Legal] promote flexibility and try to accommodate work around family life as much as possible for our team. When we launched the firm back in 2014 we were a firm of female only directors”. But this makes one think – are women having to set up by themselves to achieve this? Are they forced to create an environment that encourages working remotely and flexible working in order for them to continue to progress their career?
I think it would be unrealistic to believe that no women set up practices on their own to achieve their career aspirations. However, Rachel Roche (Solicitor/Managing Director at Roche Legal) did not feel as though she had to set up on her own to progress her career, instead set up her own practice as she “had a lot of ideas and wanted to try them on [her] own terms”. These ideas awarded Rachel the Law Society’s Excellence Award for Sole Practitioner of the Year 2018.
Additionally, Marie Walsh (Director at Consilia Legal) exclaimed: “I didn’t feel I had to set up on my own practice because I was a woman”. Marie chose to set up her own practice for “more freedom” in her personal life and “to escape the 6 minute recording system that had become oppressive to [her]”. She felt as though nothing other than billing was important in firms which was not the reason she became a solicitor. Setting up her own private practice allowed Marie to set her own limits and make her colleagues feel valued. Ultimately however, this has afforded her more time to dedicate to family as a result:
“As a woman this has no doubt helped me to manage my home life a lot better and that has been a bonus… I am able to give my time more easily and at the end of the day my time to those people is more precious than any financial gain to both myself and to them”
Marie further commented:
“I want to enable people to follow the same path and to bring them on (both men and women) to know their own worth and for them to be as happy at work as they are at home”.
This reveals that women are not necessarily setting up their own practice due to gender but because they have new ideas, desire more freedom and the recognition for doing a good job rather than the amount billed. This suggests that modern solicitors are striving for modern firms that allows new ideas and flexibility which is also advantageous for family life.
So, what does the future hold for women?
The importance of technology was suggested by Rachel as a big game changer: “The vast array of technology available these days, means more flexible working arrangements are possible”.
As a result, Rachel believes the attitudes and “historical jet lag” with regards to women are changing in law. Roche explains that Roche Legal are a “firm of mostly women – at the time of writing, we only have one male employee”.
Rapid technological advancement as recently as the last 5 years enables new parents to potentially continue practicing and work largely remotely if needs be. One could argue there is now little need to be in the office as one can access everything from home thanks to the internet, laptops, printers, smart devices and relevant software packages etc.
Like Rachel, John Bailes (Solicitor/Managing Director at Bailoran Solicitors) promotes a different business model to the traditional law firm and one that “encourages mothers returning to the legal profession and does not stifle them with the traditional 9-5 environment”. This is due to Bailoran, offering remote working, flexible hours and encouraging solicitors to be self-employed using a consultancy model. Bailoran are also a part of a Leeds pilot alongside the Law Society and Women Returners offering a “Law Returners” programme for women that have taken a career break. According to Women Returners, this allows firms “access to an untapped highly-qualified diverse talent pool, around 90% of whom are female. Accessing this hard-to-reach group helps to refill the female talent pipeline at mid-senior levels, increasing diversity of gender, age and experience and reducing the gender pay gap”.
Andrew Blinkhorn (Head of Debt Recovery at Bailoran Solicitors) believes that “the attitude has changed in terms of now it’s who is best for the job and not based on their gender”.
This potential for a positive future for women in law is strongly reflected in the current female President of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale and further demonstrated in a female President of the Law Society, Christina Blacklaws. Both candidates weren’t elected based on gender, but who was best suited. Blacklaws’ presidential theme is currently women in leadership in law. This is to promote and support gender equality within the legal profession, allowing women to break the previous barriers of prejudice.
I do not believe that law is currently dominated by males, however historically a combination of gender stereotypes alongside being unable to fee earn whilst starting a family will no doubt have resulted in barriers to promotion for many women that simply were not encountered by their male counterparts. This explains to me the current imbalance of male partners vs the number of women practising law.
So how does this affect my future career aspirations?
It is clear to me that the profession is in the midst of unprecedented change. The changing attitudes of wider society towards equal rights and pay for women alongside the incredible growth and reliance on technology provides opportunities for parents (whatever gender) to continue practicing law that were just not available to previous generations.
Does it matter that some women may have had to set up on their own to accelerate proceedings? Possibly not. In fact, the visibility of these success stories thanks to platforms such as Linked In, Twitter and a vast array of networking events available online only promotes it as being the norm for students like myself. It also forces those firms that may be suffering from the aforementioned “historical jet lag” to play catch up so they can still attract the high calibre of female candidates this generation has to offer. Penny Keatings (Consultant Solicitor at Bailoran Solicitors) is inclined to agree. She describes her experience pursing her legal career in 1989 when newly qualified as challenging because “there were hardly any female role models which made it difficult to know how to get to the top without behaving exactly like a man”. However, Penny now believes “that has changed a lot and thankfully there are a lot of female partners now who are pioneering the way forward”.
I recognise that family life may have historically created barriers for women in the legal profession and depending on an individual’s choices around when to return to work, still could due to the needs of a business. However, it is evident that attitudes and opportunities in the profession are rapidly changing. Luckily, I feel privileged to be entering the profession at a time where equality is championed and there are many successful female partners and role models visible to inspire and challenge stereotypes. Technological advances also now mean that putting a legal career on hold is no longer the only option when raising a family, for whichever parent it is that decides to take on that challenge.
#WomeninLaw #LawforAll #GenderEquality