This years’ winner of the Inspirational Women in Law Award, Keily Blair, discusses the First 100 Years project, being disruptive, and having a ‘jungle-gym’ approach to your career. In her words, “diverse organisations simply perform better”.
The First 100 Years chronicles the journey of women in law since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919. The Timeline highlights the “Firsts” achieved by women in the legal industry during this time. The actions of these trailblazing women have meant that it is no longer unusual for women to study law, to be admitted to the Roll or to be called to the Bar. In fact, at entry level, women are now often in the majority. According to the Law Society, in the year ending 31 July 2015 6,077 individuals were admitted to the Roll and 61 per cent of these were women. But how do we influence the future of the legal industry?
During the First 100 Years the women who sought equal treatment to men in the social, political and professional spheres were seen as disruptive. In recent years, we have seen the advantages of disruptive innovation in transport (Uber), in the travel (Air BnB) and in the restaurant trade (Deliveroo). Women must continue to be a disruptive influence to shape the future of the legal industry. We can do this in a number of ways including by introducing and championing alternative business models, career paths and leadership models.
Women are changing the business of legal practice. We recognise that clients are under increasing pressure to reduce legal spend and that the legal industry needs to change and adapt to meet these demands. Women are driving innovation in the legal sector by launching and managing alternatives to traditional private practice. Two of the most successful alternative legal service providers, Halebury and Obelisk, were founded by women. Women who have voiced frustrated with the traditional private practice model, and who felt it was no longer fit for purpose for both legal professionals and for clients. Women are also at the helm of multi-disciplinary practices like PwC Legal who recognise the relationship between business and the law and provide legal services embedded within professional services organisations to maximise efficiencies and cross-fertilisation of expertise. It is women who are listening and responding to client need and changing the shape of the legal profession.
In addition to providing alternative business models for clients, women are carving out alternative career paths within the legal profession. The traditional career path in a law firm is inextricably linked to post qualification experience and rewards the number of hours spent in the office. This linear approach to promotion has had a disproportionately negative impact on women. Legal recruitment firm Laurence Simons reported in 2016 that 62% of the women they surveyed said that their gender has hampered their career progress. Women disrupters are paving the way for alternative career paths within the legal industry by adopting a “jungle-gym” approach to their careers. Women are now willing to vote with their feet and move both laterally and vertically to achieve their career objectives. Women are pursuing alternative career paths and opportunities through the development of alternative business models, the growth of in-house legal expertise and the increase of flexible working within private practice. In the fight to attract the most talented Millennial women, law firms are offering better training and networking opportunities for women. Law firms are beginning to recognise that the needs of female attorneys may be different to the needs of male attorneys. Female-focused initiatives are being enacted, such as maternity coaching and return-ships, to help women deal with the potential career complications which are often associated with having children. Women are now forging a new and unconventional path to success in the legal industry.
Perhaps the most visible way in which women can shape the future of the legal industry is by rising to senior positions within the legal profession. The legal industry traditionally has a poor record of promoting women to influential positions. The McKinsey & Co and 30% Club Report, Shifting the Needle, noted than a man is ten times more likely than a female contemporary to make partner at a law firm. The case for diversity in firm leadership is compelling; diverse organisations simply perform better. In February 2016 Harvard Business Review reported that “going from having no women in corporate leadership (the CEO, the board, and other C-suite positions) to a 30% female share is associated with a one-percentage-point increase in net margin — which translates to a 15% increase in profitability for a typical firm”. This is the new battle-ground of “firsts” for women in the legal profession. It is still rare to see women in senior roles at top law firms and chambers. The number of women partners at Top 20 law firms remains stubbornly below the 20% mark. In recent years some progress has been made, for example Sonya Leydecker appointed as CEO of Herbert Smith Freehills and Penny Warde as Senior Partner at CMS Cameron McKenna. In July 2016, Liz Truss became the first female Lord Chancellor. However there is still a long way to go to achieve gender parity at the top of the legal profession. As the number of women in senior leadership positions in the legal industry grows, perhaps we will see a growth in alternative leadership models and perhaps we will have leaders who vocally advocate for the rights of women within the legal profession and beyond.
Given the make-up of the modern legal profession, there is no doubt that women will play in important role in shaping the future of the legal industry. The outdated business and career models which stifle growth in the legal profession, and stunt the women who work in it, must be challenged. Those at the top of our profession owe it to those who came before them and to those than come after them to be disruptive and to agitate for change. The responsibility to develop and champion other women in the legal sector belongs to every woman in the legal profession from entry level trainees to QCs. We owe to each other and after all “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other”.