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Women Leaders in Law Firms

The challenges facing female current and would-be senior partners



Wednesday 24 September 2014



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Senior partners in professional firms spend 90 per cent of their time serving client needs with their knowledge and expertise. But that leaves just 10 per cent of time to do all the other ‘stuff’ that makes a firm or business work: leadership, motivation, management. And this is without mention of the even more important ‘stuff’ – that makes humans work; family, home, life. So an even more complex juggling act is taking place. 

Ahead of a new Women in Law Leadership Programme at University of Cambridge Judge Business School that will run in November of this year, four leading partners – Fiona Rice, formerly of Linklaters, Sue Laing of Boodle Hatfield, Pamela Thompson of Eversheds and Tina Wisener of Doyle Clayton – share their insights and their advice.

Tina Wisener, partner and head of the Thames Valley office at Doyle Clayton, speaks of the critical importance of creating and leading a strong team – ensuring there is no dip in quality of service on the days where she cannot be 80 per cent on management issues. “I make sure clients are introduced to other members of the team at an early stage,” she says. “They know that if I’m not available – because I am in a partner’s meeting, for example – there is someone else within the team that they know and who can advise without delay.”

Sue Laing, a partner at Boodle Hatfield since 1981 and head of the firm’s Private Client & Tax Department across its London and Oxford offices from 2001 to 2011 adds: “The single most important rule is to encourage, support and mentor the team that you are bringing on or who work for you. Lead by example and trust the team, because if you have taught them well they will not let you down. Always have an open door policy; and try always to listen first, especially before criticising.”

On the particular challenges faced by women leaders in law firms, Fiona Rice, programme director of the Women in Law Leadership Programme at Cambridge Judge Business School, and a former banking partner at Linklaters said this: “Research shows us that the shortage of women in senior positions is the result of many different elements. The first step is keeping women in the profession, which is not a given with many leaving before partnership. Step two is supporting women in leadership roles. Many women are getting to the top – the issue is helping them stay there.”

On the theory that a perceived “anytime, anywhere” job is not compatible with home life she added; “Some women will get to a certain position and feel comfortable. So they’re happy to be a salaried partner but they don’t want to put themselves forward for equity. That is, of course, their choice, but there are times when with additional support, such as coaching and mentoring, they might become comfortable in stepping forward.”
Pamela Thompson, senior partner at Eversheds, points out that law has come a long way. She says, it used to be “…broadly thought that women would not reach senior roles, particularly once they had a family. We are not in that position now. We’ve progressed enormously. We are getting far better as a profession about realising the benefits that diversity can bring and are being more flexible about working arrangements. I think we are seeing and will continue to see differences for the better as a consequence of that.”

“To some extent, there is a tendency to over-analyse future challenges,” says Rice. “‘How am I going to manage being a partner in a law firm?’ ‘What about the children?’ And actually they haven’t found the right partner or bought the house yet!”

The first piece of advice Thompson would offer up to a young woman aspiring to the top of the profession is “don’t think like that.” “You go into the law wanting to be a lawyer. Ground yourself with the idea of being a lawyer first. Gain the respect of your clients and of your colleagues and managers. Then you can start to develop other skills. Hold a steady course. Find your niche. Be yourself. And, most importantly – enjoy it.”

To read the full quotes from the interviews above – click here 


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