Deirdre Trapp is an award-winning antitrust practitioner and partner at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. In an exclusive interview with First 100 Years, she discusses her route to success, improving the work/life balance, and the advice she gives to young female lawyers.
The daughter of Irish immigrants, Deirdre’s mother was a nurse and her father was in the RAF, which resulted in a peripatetic childhood. They eventually settled in West London in “a bit of an Irish Catholic enclave”. She went to Catholic state school and became the first person in her family to go to university, and the first person in living memory from her school to go to Oxford. Deirdre attributes this success in part to her immigrant parents, who set “a high store by education”, and the aspirations of her brother’s school, which made Oxbridge seem more obtainable. She studied PPE, saying that although she had “toyed with the law” in her teens, it was difficult to envisage a career in the law.
She is still concerned about the accessibility of law to children from working-class backgrounds. “If you come from a working-class background, it’s hard to imagine how you would start a legal career, it seems very risky. If you’re lucky enough to get a training contract with a big firm or barrister set they’ll at least pay you something but it’s still costly to live in London without parental resources to fall back on. Young people emerge from education with colossal debt these days just to get started in the legal profession. That means you’ve got to be really committed to some vision of yourself working in the law, you need to feel quite strongly about it. If you can’t access it at the beginning, as a sixteen-year-old, when you’re beginning to form your impressions, you will never have that vision of yourself.”
Deirdre was destined for a career at the Treasury until she met her husband and married aged just 21. “It was impulsive, but I’m still married to him and he’s been an absolute rock always. So sometimes you just have to trust your instincts and jump in with both feet.” They moved to Birmingham, and Deirdre considered the law again. After doing a law conversion, she completed her articles of clerkship at a small firm in London. “It was all very eye-opening… if you’re a trainee in a small firm you definitely learn a lot of good skills, because there’s no safety net, so you just have to stand on your own two feet. You also have to be economically responsible because in small firms every single fee earner is really making a difference, so you do learn a lot about self-reliance.”
By the time Deirdre finished her training, it was the mid-eighties, and there was a lot of demand from the larger firms for people. She was persuaded to join Freshfields in 1987 and has worked there ever since. She was made a partner in 1995, when she was eight years qualified, the year after her second child was born. She was the first woman in the history of the firm to be made a partner who had already had two children. Previous female partners tended to have no children or had waited until they had established themselves as a partner, but Deirdre knew that wasn’t for her. “I wanted to test whether I could actually work at a high level and have children at home, whether that would be feasible.”
Improving the work/life balance remains an important topic for her. “I don’t think anybody should hold back family life for work, it’s a question of getting a better balance… I was very lucky that the partner I worked for himself had four children and was very family minded, he gave me a lot of room for manoeuvre when the children were small; he was not at all a presenteeism type.”
Over her career, she has witnessed a sea-change in the way the issue is approached. She explains that when she started, the expression work/life balance hadn’t even been invented, and nobody was attempting to understand the issue. “The whole debate about work/life balance and diversity is now utterly mainstream. The transformation over my career has been absolutely extraordinary, where we’ve got ourselves to the point where we’re discussing unconscious bias – when I first started the bias was conscious.” There have been other encouraging signs, including people taking longer parental leave, and both parents adjusting their working hours to share childcare responsibilities. But she says there is still a long way to go while the burden of childcare still falls disproportionately on women.
Does Deirdre think her own career would have been different if she had been a man? Perhaps if she’d taken a more transactional route, but she believes that women tend to do well in specialist areas such as antitrust. “Clients come to you for your expertise and experience, so I suspect it may be a little bit easier to shine as a woman in a specialist area.” If she hadn’t been a lawyer, she suspects she’d have gone into public policy, but she thinks she’d also enjoy being a garden designer.
Deirdre was the first person to succeed in judicially reviewing a market investigation decision by the Competition Commission, but says she counts as amongst her greatest successes the development of the firm, becoming global practice leader for antitrust after the merger with Bruckhaus and Deringer in 2000. She believes the qualities that make a successful lawyer include resilience, physical stamina, good organisation and a sense of humour.
Deirdre has lots of advice for aspiring female lawyers. Firstly, she says it’s important for young lawyers to focus on giving advice to clients, rather than focusing on the partner or hierarchy that you’re working in. “Obviously it’s terribly important to get on well within your hierarchy, but they’re not the client and at the end of the day your job is to connect with the client and solve their problem. You see a lot of women just turning into ‘safe pairs of hands’, which is a kiss of death expression, in a supporting role and they plateau.”
Secondly, she is concerned about young women deflecting praise. While you shouldn’t claim somebody else’s achievements, women need to learn to take credit for their own, and not be shy about it. “You need to achieve recognition for what you’ve achieved and the benefits that you’ve delivered in your organisation.”
Thirdly, women need to learn to project authority. “Being deferential, stopping when someone interrupts them rudely, saying sorry all the time when actually they are not at fault, not sitting in the right place room where they can command the room. There’s a lot of physical and verbal minimising that women do which ends up marginalising them. Often unless you’ve seen yourself on video you don’t even know you’re doing it, because it’s so culturally ingrained in women to defer…. but you need a little bit of personal presence and to make a physical impact.”
Deirdre had to train herself out of these behaviours too. “When I first started here I didn’t ever want to put my head above my books. Presenting to a group of people was an absolute nightmare. But it is learned behaviour, and if it doesn’t come naturally, the organisations that you work in need to provide you with the right kind of training. As part of creating a level playing field, you need affirmatory support in that area, to give you encouragement and license to change some pretty ingrained habits. You also need affirmatory behaviour with men, to deal with some of the ways that they behave which they may not appreciate make it difficult for women to shine or even to survive in the work environment that they create.”
About twelve years ago, Deirdre and her family moved from London to a farm in Kent, so in her spare time she enjoys gardening. “It’s very relaxing. We’ve got a flock of sheep and horses, chickens and a donkey and I’ve got an enormous vegetable garden. It’s very satisfying after a tough week at work to go round doing a lot of deadheading.”
Written by Annabel Twose, Project Coordinator of First 100 Years