I was recently honoured and humbled to be part of the opening panel session at the Spark 21 conference.
Created by Dana Denis-Smith and her team with its focus on inspiring and encouraging female progression within law.
Our contribution was to set the scene as to where things stand now and why - from which the rest of the day could then build towards the future.
Our panel talked before the conference and I wrote down some notes to focus my thinking so that I could try to make a valuable contribution on the day. Our panel became an interview format session so the comments that I made on the day ended up as a session of answers to questions rather than the narrative version below which I am publishing in the hope that it might make a small constructive contribution to the ongoing discussion on this very important topic.
"Lisa commented earlier that we hit 50% female law intake in the 1980s but – in "traditional law", solicitors and barristers, - a high proportion of these women continue to choose to turn off "trad law" at about 7 years qualified.
But how many of them are actually turning to "alternative law" rather than leaving law all together?
By "Alternative Law" I mean: In-house legal teams – now 25k of the England and Wales community; alternative legal resourcing models; online publishing; legal technology; legal data analytics; legal publishing, central and local government law and regulators legal teams and, of course, more progressive law firms and law firm models.
If you look at all of these areas you will see inspirational, innovative, senior female legal sector leaders – including, very notably, Dana who, among many other things, is the creator of this event.
Most of my career has been spent working in and with law departments in businesses. And when I think about the legal leaders in my sector who inspire me, and others; the best people whom I have worked for, worked with, and whom have worked for me – the majority who immediately come to mind are female.
So in the year of the 10th anniversary of the de-regulatory Legal Services Act I guess that one of the questions has got to be – is part of the challenge in increasing progression within "trad law" that many very able women are actually seeing better, more exciting and more interesting roles in "alt law"?
This does not remove the need to fix "trad law" but it might at least help to show another aspect of the "50% at intake but not later on" issue that Lisa explained earlier.
As Keith has touched on – core aspects of leadership are culture and tone from the top. Objectively most law firms are small to medium sized businesses. Even the biggest ones have largely only been big for the last 15-20 years and many of those that have got big have done so through regular mergers rather than being stable organisations with settled and integrated cultures, teams and processes and organic growth.
And then you look at the structures of the departments and teams in law firms. These teams, even in big firms, are often still small and driven by leaders who have a powerful position in their team because all of the team want to be as specialist in their area as their boss is and, the more senior you become, the harder it is to succeed without the patronage of that boss of that team - unless you move firm - because your future is tied to the thing that they are more expert in than you (whereas, in in-house teams, it is frequently the case that the boss is less expert in your legal discipline than you are and this can, but does not always, lead to a different and better quality of interaction).
In addition you often still have the short termism of the annual partnership drawings cycle and a culture which is still, inexorably, drawn to the harder – rather than better – that you work, the better your prospects will be.
None of these factors make it easy to facilitate the development and the sustenance of the sort of the good people development cultures that are needed to help good people to progress and to stay motivated to stay when they can move to a:
- start-up business;
- small legal team;
- different law firm with their choice of culture and more influence over it; or
- large well established corporate or government department where the legal function's behaviours in these areas are permeated by the better people development practices of the organisation as a whole.
Although, on that last point, everything is relative – it is worth remembering that Equal Pay Act reporting has become mandatory in the UK because only 5 organisations chose to do it voluntarily – and all 5 had a female HR director on the Board.
So perhaps part of the challenge is to increase the recognition that the destination should be "a great legal career" rather than "a career in trad law as traditionally practised" and if the best talent increasingly bypasses the least pleasant and prospectful places to be in trad law then that, in itself, may be part of the reform needed for those areas.
And another part of the reform for "trad law" is increasingly demand lead – as Lisa Hart Shepherd's ACRITAS' data analysis indicated last year and this – law departments' interactions with law firms tend to be better when the law firm team is as diverse as the legal department that it services.
There are many challenges in access to the traditional legal professions; whether it be student debt levels; weaknesses in early years education; the lack of consistent standards in higher legal education which can lead to a subjective bias towards traditional universities among recruiters simply because they need some methods, no matter how questionable, for filtering the volume of applicants to manageable levels; or host of other factors.
It is very hard to secure a foot hold in "trad law" at the best of times. And if you are from a minority or impoverished background. If English is your second or third language. If you face additional challenges in a "word heavy" trade -such as lack of sight or hearing or a health challenge. Then that foot hold is many times harder no matter how motivated and applied you are.
Multiple desirable destinations make multiple routes to those destinations more possible. And multiple routes give better chances of helping people to bypass things which might create blockages for people in existing paths. And new paths such as legal technologist, legal process operations, risk and compliance, legal bot programmer, online court advisor, ombudsperson are starting to open up all of the time which can provide the first rung on the ladder – sometimes they can even be the whole ladder.
And the good thing with new things – is that, although there can still be many barriers in the way, there are fewer barriers as it is new to everyone and people who are committed and entrenched in trad law are less likely to desert what they have already committed their emotions, their time and their life to than someone who has not.
So perhaps, part of the answer to the question how to increase female progression – especially from minority and poor backgrounds- is to increase the focus on the destination being a "great career in law" rather than "an expensively acquired regulated title of fading meaning and real value"? And, as mentioned earlier, there are an ever increasing number of successful female leaders in law who are creating these new opportunities…