Dame Janet Gaymer: The Story of Woman in Law (Family, Culture and the Future)

Published 5th September 2016

These are excerpts from the First 100 Year’s video interview with Dame Janet Gaymer, first woman to become Senior Partner of a Top 20 law firm. The video is currently being produced and will be released shortly.

I think the story of women in law is very much a slow burn. It’s obvious if you look at the figures, and I also think that women who work in law firms, still today possibly, are perceived as rather scary. The thought is that they somehow must be superwomen, to do well in a law firm and perhaps also have a family. So that creates a sort of mystique of this scary female, which is rather sad, because they’re not scary females. They’re as human as everyone else and they’ve had to deal with everything else, that everyone has to. So, in terms of the way women in law might be depicted, again, it’s one of ‘how did they do that?’, asking the question ‘how did they do that? How did they manage? How could anyone else do that?’. And that’s now moved to the current generation, which is almost turned round completely, where they see it almost as obvious. You get on the conveyor belt and you go through, and then unfortunately you get to a stage when you think ‘am I enjoying this? Is this really what I want to do?’, and a lot of women today are struggling with that.

It was a very strange experience actually, going up to Oxford and reading jurisprudence, because in that year, I think there were only about seven or eight women scattered through mostly female colleges, doing jurisprudence. And the rest were men. And I remember the very first day I went into the lecture theater in the St Cross building, sitting on the front row with this little group of women, and I remember us all turning our heads back and looking at this sea of men. And I remember thinking this is going to fun. And of course I met my husband at Oxford, who was reading jurisprudence as well.

I think one of the unfortunate side effects of the [legal profession’s] culture, over the years, has been first of all the fact that women have left the profession, very often three [or] four years PQE. And they’ve voted with their feet, they’ve gone off and they’ve never come back. [This is] a complete waste of resource, as many of them were extremely good lawyers. The second thing is that those that have worked extremely hard, and I’m including in male and female lawyers, there have been tragic examples of broken marriages, of lack of social relationships, of not seeing children at the time they wanted to see children, all those kind of things, the fracturing of the social context in which lawyers were working. Which is not good for either the lawyers, the firm or society as a whole. I think firms are much more aware of it now, but there will always be lawyers who want to reach the superstar level, and will be prepared to work round the clock and give whatever it takes. And of course while they are there, the firms will ask them to do it.

In terms of having a family, and having a legal career, I think there are two things. The first thing is you must have a supportive partner, someone who is going to help you through the tough bits, not criticise, but just quietly support you. And I was very fortunate in marrying someone who did that. I owe him a lot, he’s put up with a lot, and I owe him a lot. The second thing is again, it’s back to innovation actually, not to be afraid to innovate. At Simmons and Simmons, I was the first lady partner who’d been pregnant. Fortunately I was an employment lawyer, and the firm turned round to me and said ‘well, we don’t know anything about this, you know, will you tell us what arrangements you need?’, so I explained the proposal. Well I explained the legislation actually for maternity leave, and I suggested a mode of return, and we all made it up as we went along. So, we didn’t have that heavy practice background and structural background which is in place now, where it’s just absolutely normal for a woman to go off on maternity leave, and come back. So we were very much making it up as we went along, and happily I had a supportive firm as well.

So a combination of a supportive partner and a supportive firm, and a mind-set which was along the lines of ‘let’s just roll with this, and see what works and what doesn’t’. I’ve observed some women lawyers, who have been so determined to come back to work they’ve done it come what may, and then they’ve discovered it hasn’t worked, and felt they’ve failed in some way. That’s not a good approach, because you don’t know whether it’s going to work or not, you’ve just got to find your own way. So you can’t generalise really.

Well, when I was trying to decide what to do, when I was leaving Oxford, and had wanted to apply for articles, I applied to a number of firms and I remember at the time I didn’t really have any sense that that was going to be a problem, that there was an issue. So, to that extent, Oxford was a very sheltered place, okay, I was in an all female college, and okay, there weren’t that many women lawyers in the year, but I had no sense that the world might be against me.

The first experience of the world being against me was when I applied for articles to a City firm which is still in existence today, and they sent me a letter, which said ‘thank you for your application, we shall not be calling you for an interview’, and the letter actually says ‘we are prejudiced against female article clerks, due to some unfortunate experiences in the past’. Strangely, when I received the letter I didn’t have a sense of ‘I’m going to sue you, I’m outraged’ and all this sort of thing. First because there was no Sex Discrimination Act at that point. There was no legislation I could use to bring proceedings, and not that I would have wanted to. But I just accepted it as, okay, that’s the way life is. And happily I’d had offers from other firms so that was it. Looking back now, and reading the letter now, I’m outraged by it, but at the time, I just thought okay, that’s it, let’s carry on.

So what does a future woman lawyer look like? What does a woman lawyer in the future look like? Let’s try and describe her. I think she will be very technologically savvy. She will know how to use the latest gadgets because that’s going to make her life easier. She will be able to choose her social path in life, whether she wants to have a family or not, without any concern about the effect on her career. She will be very conscious of the law as a consumer product, i.e. the people out there buying legal services are much more informed, cost aware, and want to know what they’re getting. So she will be conscious of that. And I’d like to think she will be a very human person, in the sense that, I’d like to think that she will want to make the world a better place, for her family, her other half, the firm, the clients etc., etc. I mean that’s not normally in the lawyers’ curriculum but I like to think that that social conscience part of being a lawyer will be there, and will survive any changes that are going to happen in the market.

At the end of the day, she also needs to be a lawyer who delivers the highest quality service to her clients, and acts in the clients’ best interests, and you can never let go of that, because it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female, that’s what it’s all about, you’re there to help the client.