Women told to act collectively to advance their interests in law firms
Now is the time for collective action by women lawyers who want to improve their lot in the legal world, the Law Society vice-president said yesterday.
Addressing the Women in Law summit in London, Lucy Scott Moncrieff said women lawyers also need to get noticed individually, but in a good way.
“Getting noticed for your willingness to put in long hours doing tedious tasks is likely to get you noticed as someone who can be trusted to spend time doing tedious tasks, rather than as partnership material,” she said.
The issues, she said, were clear: “the incompatibility of presenteeism and the long-hours culture with family responsibilities; the valorisation of billable hours and conformity over project management and client-handling skills; the ingrained masculine culture; the absence of appropriate female role models; and the enormous barriers in the way of those seeking to re-invigorate their careers after maternity leave.”
There is no need for further analysis, Ms Scott Moncrieff said, and the first action might be to redefine the problem. “Currently it is perceived as a problem for women, who are being held back by a dominant male culture. Well, history shows that dominant groups only loosen their grip on the pleasures and privileges of power if they are made to do so, or if they come to see that it would be in their best interests to do so.
“Asking nicely doesn’t really cut it, nor does blaming those at the top for doing what comes naturally. So we need to be very clear that the problem is not our problem, but theirs, that they are damaging their own interests by failing to reform.
“And part of our persuasiveness will come from a genuine belief that gender neutral career progression is not just a matter of fairness, which is a good thing in itself, but also the best way to ensure that the organisations have the widest possible range of opinions, approaches, styles and strategies to draw from, in the interests of remaining competitive, dynamic and successful.”
Women need to encourage firms to use their commitment to equality and diversity in their marketing, and their clients to make a firm’s diversity profile an important element in getting their business, she continued.
“There is clearly a piece of work to be done to discover if the clients’ perceived demand for 24/7 contact etc is really as important as it is thought to be, or whether clients, or at least, some clients, just use this level of accessibility because it is offered to them.”
Another step would be for women to ensure they have “a good understanding of how inadvertent and indirect discrimination manifest themselves in the workplace” so that they can explain, for example, if the criteria for partnership are unclear, inconsistent and confusing.
“Another example might be managing client expectations in a way that allows flexible working. Creative solutions to meet the needs of clients and the concerns of senior management need to be developed by the people who want to benefit from them and offered up as a helpful contribution to staying competitive. Make a business case, show how it will save money, impress clients etc.
“If there is no women’s network group in your firm, perhaps you should think about setting one up, to pool ideas and strategy. Lawyers are an individualistic bunch mainly, but this is really an area where collective strength and wisdom will produce the best results.”
At the same time, women as individuals must “put ourselves on the line”, and be aware “of how our typically cautious, conscientious approach to our work and our careers may be holding us back”.
This means doing things that may feel uncomfortable, such as “applying for projects or leadership roles even if you not sure that you are ready or have the skills; asking for feedback if you fail; crucially, keeping on applying; watching how the successful people in the firm behave, and copying them – they probably did just the same in their career; and being brave enough to disagree with seniors in meetings if you think they are wrong, when you have a coherent justification for your opinion.
“None of this need cause any problems so long as you remain open and friendly, and you will certainly get yourself noticed. And getting noticed is very important, if it is in a good way.”
Ms Scott Moncrieff said that if women lawyers feel they are being unfairly held back, “look around for a new job, not necessarily in private practice” – making sure to explain why they are leaving and what the firm should do “to reduce the likelihood of other talented women also leaving” – or set up on their own.
Ms Scott Moncrieff has built up a virtual law firm, which now has 60 self-employed lawyers, mainly women. “Remember that everything a lawyer needs is between her ears or in her laptop,” she said.