To mark International Women’s Day, Laura Devine, principal of Laura Devine Solicitors, reflects on women in the law and the changes she’s seen in the profession through her career.
Law since the 1980s
I’m not sure the law has changed since I started out in the 1980s but the way law is practised has changed greatly for two main reasons.
First, the increase in the use of technology has given us freedom to leave the office at respectable hours to accommodate out-of-work demands and desires but at the same time technology has taken away our freedom in that we are continuously connected and lawyers can feel pressure to constantly check in.
Second, both employers and clients appreciate that lawyers need to have a balance in work and outside work and don’t necessarily expect ceaseless contact where this is not necessary for the client matter in question.
City and the rest…
I am not sure we should generalise by talking about ‘the law’ when there are over 10,000 law firms in England and Wales.
The focus is often on the City law firms where the conditions are very different and where in corporate, banking and litigation work the performance pressures and long hours driven by clients have increased enormously over the past 20 or 30 years.
Many lawyers are not able to cope with this and move to firms where the pressures are less or burn out early and retire. In one US firm in London, I understand the partners are not even considered eligible for their bonus pool if they have not recorded at least 2,500 hours a year.
If there is one reason why female lawyers make up over 50% of the intake of trainees but a much smaller percentage of partners in City firms it is probably simply the fact that women have children and take time off for maternity and subsequently may not wish to go back to the rat race to ‘make partner’ when they have a family.
Combine that fact with the performance and hours requirements of certain types of practice which make life difficult for a woman to juggle all the pressures, then it is easy to understand why the numbers of female partners in City firms is low compared to those of men.
Flexibility in the mid-size
Those women who do get to the top in large firms have usually had to make difficult decisions and compromises about how they run their lives and families, because something has to give.
On the other hand, I see many smaller and mid-size firms outside the City where women either run them or are in senior positions or manage their work and outside lives by working either part-time or ‘child-friendly’ hours.
It is possible to find a balance which can suit. Much depends on the nature of the work – transactional is more difficult to manage if there are competing pressures outside the business and so you will find many female lawyers doing advisory work, including in City firms.
Tech and working patterns
Women in the law are still behind men in partnership terms, notably in the City, but there has been movement here because of technology.
Partnerships still expect excellent client care and so they must but both partners and clients appreciate the benefits of agile working and shifting hours of work. This accommodates women and men. Partnerships are open to promotion for those who work different work patterns. Those who don’t accommodate are at the risk of losing talented dedicated lawyers.
Leading a firm that’s 75%-plus women
Attitudes of people running law firms have changed – for the better. The problem is that the pressures on many law firms to perform for clients and for profit mean that there is a constant issue of how to look after the female lawyers and at the same time keep the clients happy and the firm profitable. There are no easy answers.
Wellbeing and ‘mental health’ were not used in relation to the workforce when I started my firm in 2003. My view was to attract top-quality lawyers and top-quality clients. I expected if you had the former the latter would follow. They did. I appreciated that being comfortable at work was favourable. I wanted to have a collegiate, considerate and congenial workforce which is achievable by treating staff well. From never having a formalised wellbeing programme we moved straight to having a wellbeing movement at LDS.
I tell young lawyers that they have made a great career choice and to appreciate further career choices, difficult choices may have to be made. Determination, quality and ability will always be recognised and shine through to enhance a legal career. Remember, the president of the Supreme Court is a woman, and from a part of the legal profession which is even more conservative than solicitors.
Learning from others
From my knowledge of women in professions such as law, medicine , accountancy etc all experience the same issues as expressed above. The large corporate world likewise has gender inequality issues, probably again driven by work pressures at the top. I am not sure if there is any particular sector which has all the answers – perhaps a fruitful area for some research?
My role model
The late Lady Maggie Legg (nee) Wakelin-Saint qualified as a solicitor in the 1960s and despite having five children and numerous grandchildren she made time for friends, the arts, travel and exercise. Maggie was kind, witty, sophisticated, energetic and attractive. She was a special friend who without me realising- mentored me. I just thought she was generous with her advice which was often unsolicited.
The final word
I hope in the future the concept of promoting women in the law might actually no longer be necessary. Do women really need to be empowered? Do we really need authority to achieve, lead, manage? Women around the world have earned their positions, are fulfilling their ambitions and realising their achievements. Many hold prominent positions in society and in the legal profession in particular. Christina Blacklaws, the current Law Society president is a fine example.
Laura Devine Solicitors is a multi-award winning leading boutique immigration firm in the UK, ranked in band 1 by all legal directories and with more individual practitioners recognised as leading experts than any other UK immigration practice.