Women in Law

What do most people picture when they think of what a women lawyer wears? If we go by popular culture, a super sharp black skirt suit with a luxuriously alluring white blouse usually comes to mind. How well this reflects reality is up for debate, but workwear for women in law has historically been something of a battle ground, and remains an unnecessary stress point for women in law today.

Workwear for Women Lawyers: Then and Now

As reported by this First 100 Year’s post, the fight for women’s suffrage, women’s fashion in turn began to emulate traditionally male styles, with sober suits included as a symbol of the new independent woman. However, the legal industry was still always one step behind, and until recently even the sight of a woman lawyer in trousers was considered risqué!

Today, as the wider office culture becomes more casual, with the suit more often reserved for high level meetings, how has the legal industry adapted its dress expectations, if at all?

Thankfully attitudes to women wearing trousers have mostly relaxed, but women in the corporate and professional setting still face additional societal judgement on their performance and leadership based on what they are wearing and how they present themselves. Only last month, a study found that people judged women who wore more makeup as having weaker leadership skills. At the same time, the sober suit that was once adopted by women to signify their liberation, has evolved into the uniform of the stifled, stuffy corporate identity.

The Pressure to Conform

Lawyers as a whole are spending an incredible amount of time and money on workwear. The high spend however does not necessarily mean that workwear for women in law is being treated as an enjoyable indulgence – in fact quite the opposite. There is the suggestion that many lawyers do not find it easy to dress themselves for work, spending an excessive amount of time – up to three months of the year – deciding what to wear, and are viewing sartorial choices for work as a stress point. There are two sides to the issue: law is typically seen as high paid, particularly in practice, and there is pressure to conform to high standards of dress for all genders and levels of employment. However, at the same time, there are wider culture changes with more allowances made for individuality in the workplace. Smart casual is that dreaded catch-all term that means different things to different people, so navigating expectations can become even more of a minefield even though the dress code is in fact ‘relaxing.’ Add to that the additional scrutiny that women face on how they present themselves, and workwear for women in law can become a real drain on mental energy, as well as the pocket.

Female Lawyer Workwear: A Fashion Expert’s View

How have fashion observers seen attitudes to workwear trends in law evolve? We talk to fashion expert Emilie Chanteloup, co-founder of digital magazine Imaginealady.com, who tells us what she is seeing in women’s approaches to workwear in the corporate and professional workplace.

“In people’s minds, the professional workwear dress code is typically a suit,” says Emilie, “and jackets are must-haves in any situation. But the question now is: is the suit really essential for a conventional client meeting?”

Then there is the question of colour. “Black, grey or navy are used by all women struggling with the ‘what to wear’ dilemma every morning,” Emilie observes. “Dark colours, base suits and white tops; are often how you can describe a workwear outfit in a law firm. Sometimes, they may attempt to go a bit out there by wearing a polka dot or cream shirt and get comments on how they look ‘different’. However positive or negative the comment can be, it’s still a comment and it can easily bring down a woman’s confidence. That may sound extreme, but the reality is in our Imaginealady street fashion stories, most of the female workers from law firms I meet mention the fact that the weekend is the time where they take back their freedom and allow colour into their outfits.”

What of the money being spent on work clothes? “Each week, 5 days out of 7, those women are having wardrobe frustrations because of the social pressure in their work environments. When Vogue, Elle and other fashion magazines talk about the last workwear trends and how to follow it, lawyers and women working at law firms are not even allowed to wear a bright yellow silk shirt with their black suit, creating a big gap between magazines and real life. So, how can you spend such a crazy amount of money without being a fashion follower? The answer is simple: the money goes on expensive pieces. Suits can cost nearly £600 with alterations or far more if they’re tailored. This is then justified as it gives people more confidence to wear an expensive brand suit. If nobody starts the workwear revolution, in 20 years from now, the workwear will still be described as the boring uniform to look like all your colleagues, while still spending a fortune. Wearing something is all about showing a part of who you are and who you want to be. So why hide your identity at work?”

Emilie touches on a very good point. In an industry where women still feel the need to work that little bit harder to be taken as seriously as their male peers, something as slight as the colour of their shirt is often seen as a risk to their professional identity. Female lawyers may find themselves dressing to make themselves more invisible to avoid unjust scrutiny of their presence and appropriateness in the workplace. This reality differs greatly from the broadly held view in the fashion world that traditional professional dress codes are on the way out.

Changing The Approach to Workwear

Dressing for work should be a more enjoyable part of our working routine, not another stress point. When you put on an outfit, it should be an easy decision that enhances your mood and prepares you for work; the clothes you wear should represent you as an individual, the pride you take in your work and what you hope to accomplish during that day.

Marianna Ferro, CEO of Flair Atelier online fashion tailoring portal, agrees. “It is difficult to generalise, women tend to be less aligned than they used to be when it comes to workwear. It’s safe to say that women working in creative sectors tend to go for bolder option, while others working in more formal office as banks or law firms tend to purchase updated versions of the classic little black dress. What is definitely happening is that women more and more are leaving behind the grey and dark blue formal suits at work and they are less intimidated about showing their feminine side. The trends we see are all about keeping it professional, without losing your identity. Whether it’s a classic cut in an unexpected colour, or a statement piece to complete a formal look, workwear is now a mix of confidence and comfort: crease-free fabrics, well-considered cuts, overall quality that make you feel great throughout the day so you can keep your focus on achieving, and not just appearing.”

The Bottom Line

Our choice of what to wear has never been broader, but many women lawyers are still expected to fit into a very narrow box of expectations. There is nothing wrong with one or two nice suits, but it can no longer be held up as the defining feature of a lawyer’s wardrobe. As women are becoming more ever-present and visible in the higher echelons of the legal profession, we can hope that more individuality and indeed, colour, will follow, as women lawyers are no longer judged as a category but on their individual identities and merits. There are enough pressures on our shoulders. The less time we are forced to spend worrying about what to wear, the better for all.

Women in Law

As a woman-led alternative legal services provider seeking to change the culture of a notoriously patriarchal industry, we celebrate and champion the success of women in law on a daily basis. With International Women’s Day upon us, and Women’s History Month underway, it’s a great chance for us to find out more about the women in law across the world who are blazing a trail in legal tech to change the legal industry as we know it. Here are some of the key names in law who are making history today…

Maura Grossman

Photo: Cheriton School of Computer Science, University of Waterloo

Maura Grossman has had a more unusual path to law, starting out as a clinical psychologist before passing the bar, and being promoted to Of Counsel with Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz  in 2006. She is a leading advocate and driver of e-discovery technology, and has since moved to become a professor of computer science, while continuing to practice law with her own practice Maura Grossman Law in New York (USA). Grossman worked with Professor Gordon Cormack on a landmark paper titled Technology-Assisted Review in E-Discovery Can Be More Effective and More Efficient Than Exhaustive Manual Review, which is credited with creating the technology-assisted review (TAR) field. In her role at the University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada) she is building on her research to continue to advance e-discovery in the legal sector.

Bahar Ansari

Photo: Stanford Law School, Stanford University

Bahar Ansari is a practising American lawyer and co-founder of Case.one, a legal tech startup based in California that has developed cloud-based, all-in-one legal practice management software helping attorneys work on litigation, exchange information, manage time and billing, create invoices and monitor ongoing tasks from wherever they work.

The idea came from her own experience of a lack of suitable options for case management systems, during both her time as a law firm litigator and when trying to source technology for her own practice. She realised that there were two key problems; the expense of technology available and the resistance amongst traditional practices to take advantage of technology to revamp their systems. Ansari aims to disrupt the global legal market and make justice more accessible to all through education and technology innovations.

Kristina Nordlander

Photo: Sidley Austin LLP www.sidley.com

Kristina Nordlander is renowned as an EU competition and litigation lawyer, who has been involved in many high profile anti trust investigations and cases before EU courts. In 2017, she was named as a Top 10 Innovator in Europe by the Financial Times for her ‘unconventional’ approach to cases, including her representation of the leading European online pharmacy DocMorris in a landmark case concerning cross-border internet sales of prescription medicines. Even more notably to us, she is founder of and runs the Women’s Competition Network (WCN) – a group of around 1,700 women in antitrust – said in the Global Competition Review that she was motivated to establish the WCN by “a very long career with no female role models” in which networking events were attended exclusively by men. The WCN, an international network for senior competition law and policy professionals, which aims to promote the advancement of women in the field.

Mishi Choudhary

An Indian technology lawyer and digital rights activist, Mishi Choudhary previously practised as a High Court and Supreme Court Litigator in New Delhi, and is also the only lawyer in the world to simultaneously appear on briefs in the US and Indian Supreme Courts. With a passion and dedication to the free and open source software movement she set up the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) in 2010, with the aim of protecting the rights of internet users and software providers in this rapidly moving sphere. She was also part of the SaveTheInternet coalition that successfully campaigned for net neutrality in India. Her achievements led to her being named in 2015 as one of Asia Society’s 21 young leaders building Asia’s future.

Odunoluwa Longe

Photo: Venture Capital for Africa

Odunoluwa Longe is a Nigerian lawyer who was recently awarded SME Empowerment Innovation Challenge for East and West Africa at the Innovating Justice Awards which aims to turn ‘promising and disruptive ideas into effective innovations’. She co-founded DIY Law, a legal technology company enabling access to online legal services and information for entrepreneurs in Africa, with Bola Olonisakin and Funkola Odeleye. The business model may not be unique, but it has the potential to be a major catalyst for change in Nigeria, where complicated bureaucracy stifles entrepreneurship and enables corruption at all levels of government and business. Longe also runs her own practice, and believed it more important to stay in Nigeria where her idea could make the biggest impact. With that kind of dedication and belief in the future of law in a changing world we reckon she is one to watch.

Photo: NextLaw Labs

Marie Bernard

Marie Bernard worked previously as European Director of Innovations at Dentons law firm, and became strategic advisor to Dentos’ legal technology venture NextLaw Labs before being appointed CEO. NextLaw Labs is a global incubator that actively supports and invests in new legal technologies. Bernard has long been a promoter of technology and innovation in the law, and her understanding approach to the often slower decision making processes within traditional law firm, and passionate belief in new innovations and ideas has enabled her to create successful ‘co-innovation partnerships’, allowing lawyers to explore and experiment with pilots and give them the space to adapt and change their thinking for themselves. Her work led to her being recognised in the Fastcase 50 as one of the world’s leading innovators in law in 2017.

For Women’s Day 2018, take some time to recognise the women who have inspired, mentored or affected change in your chosen career path. We’d love to hear about the women in law you most admire @theatticlondon

Women in Law

As part of the aims of the First 100 Years project, Spark 21 held the third annual conference providing a cross-sector platform to debate ‘Women Leaders in Law: a 21st Century Conversation’.

The First Hundred Years in 2017

Dana Denis-Smith, the founder of First 100 Years and CEO of Obelisk Support, welcomed the event’s largest audience so far and thanked the hosts, Simmons & Simmons LLP.

First 100 Years is soon to be expanded into France and Australia – in particular as Australia is celebrating its centenary for women a year ahead of England and Wales, in 2018. Dana set the tone by saying we are moving beyond hackneyed phrases on diversity by opening up a wider discussion and debate on promoting women leaders in the legal profession.

Christina Blacklaws, President Elect of The Law Society, praised the project in creating a unique archive of the history of women pioneers in law and resources offering a wide range of positive role model of women in law. She highlighted the work still to be done to achieve parity and equality, as the pay differential and partnership statistics for women are still woeful. Blacklaws then announced the launch of a far-reaching Law Society programme (working with the Bar and Lexis Nexis). This will comprise of research and round-table discussions facilitated by women, so that empirical data can be gathered to form the foundations of concrete proposals to redress the imbalances and effect change, culminating in a global summit in the centenary year 2019.

She urged everyone to participate in the discussions and continue the documenting of the stories of women in the legal profession. This call to action theme – the need for personal action and contribution to the wider debate – is one that was echoed throughout the day by enthusiastic questions, comments both in the hall and on Twitter #First100Years.

Panel: History of Women in Law

The historical context of women’s’ leadership was the topic of the next panel chaired by journalist Catherine Baksi. She described the journey of diversity from a time 100 years ago women were not considered ‘persons’ and therefore couldn’t become lawyers, the passing of The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, and posed the question of how this is represented at the leadership level today. Keith Krasny, leadership coach, observed that women don’t lack leadership skills; and their skills might be right for the new type of legal firms created by disruption. Professor Lisa Webley, University of Westminster. Bruce Macmillan, in-house lawyer and director of The Center for Legal Leadership, gave practical advice: recruit on technical skills and behaviours. If people are preventing diversity initiative, make them accountable for their decisions, added Sam Smethers CEO of the Fawcett Society.

Keynote: #HeForShe by Lord Neuberger

Our #HeforShe keynote speaker Lord Neuberger followed on with his crisp distillation of principles of the importance of championing diversity in law, focusing on women in particular. 50 % of the population are women, therefore it’s a basic equality point; the failure to promote diversity in all its forms is a blatant waste of talent. “If you truly believe that women are less good at law than men, trying telling that to Brenda Hale!” he said. A more diverse profession (and from his stand point, judiciary) is needed more than ever in the current times to uphold the rule of law; this will foster greater trust by the public as a whole.

In essence, we need an inclusive and representative judiciary. Lord Neuberger spoke of male only application forms were still in use at Lincolns Inn in 1987. You had to manually cross out ‘he’ and ‘him’ and substitute ‘she’ and ‘her’, which epitomised the exclusion culture. Taking questions from the floor, he was direct and honest in his reflections that that in the past there was tolerance of behaviour prejudicial to women in law, and even included his own conduct. He agreed that everything we must work towards for women applies equally or more for BAME lawyers. At the end of the session, the hashtag #HeforShe was trending.

Panel: #HeForShe

The next session continued with the #HeForShe theme, further exploring how can men help women in the profession and reach the higher echelons. Catherine Baksi, led the discussion with Andrew Langdon QC, Chairman of The Bar Council talked about the positive effect of flexible working hours and mandatory mentoring pairing. Chris White, Founder, Aspiring Solicitors said it’s important for leaders to have accountability and responsibility and change to happen now needs more proactive action to call-out abuses.

Suzanne Szczetnikowitcz, Inspirational Women in Law Finalist and solicitor spoke about the importance of networks and mentoring and highlighting the need to identify rising talent and her role in creating Women in Law in London. James Hanlon, GC, is proud of the great female leadership statistics at IKEA and is a big believer in statutory reporting and that transparency can bring change. Andrew Magowan General Counsel at ASOS talked about how General Counsel can definitely use their buying power to promote diversity amongst their panels and look with rigour at what actually happens, by whom, and not to take diversity claims at pitches at face value.

Harriet Johnson, Inspirational Women in Law Finalist 2017 and barrister at Doughty Street Chambers spoke of how women should overcome their reticence to promote their self and how she and others promoted others through the organisation Women in Criminal Law as a way of overcoming this. One audience member raised the topic of how women who displayed ambition could often be perceived in a negative light. Harriet said she took inspiration from her poster in her chambers which says: ‘Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man’. “We need cultural and institutional change and for men to be a part of that,” she summarised.

In Conversation: Katie Gollop QC and Nemone Lethbridge

Katie Gollop QC, from Serjeants Inn Chambers gave an extraordinary account of the barriers and hurdles of her very colourful personal and professional life as a female barrister. This interview was recorded for the BBC radio 4 Law in Action programme, scheduled to be broadcast on November.

She was one of two women reading Law at Somerville College at Oxford  in 1952 and described how her tutor treated them with contempt as they ‘would only go on to commit the crime of matrimony’. She described in extraordinary detail the exclusion of women at the Bar at her chambers, where a lock was put on the lavatory door and all the men were given a key except her – she had to go to a café on Fleet Street.

She persisted and told her truly extraordinary life story, her clients the Kray twins, and of wearing pink kid gloves to the Old Bailey. On being asked her best practice tip she advised “always put yourself in the client’s shoes. Try to imagine what it’s like to be them.” To her, legal work is about fighting injustice and she still works at the law centre she founded in Stoke Newington.

Panel: #SheForShe

We were then joined by Dame Jenni Murray who led the #SheForShe Women Leaders in Law panel. There was some discussion and disagreement about whether women made different leaders to men – but there was consensus about the importance of authenticity. We listened to Nilema Bhakta-Jones, General Counsel for Ascential plc on the importance of leaders allowing themselves to be the best version of themselves and not to shy away from traits of nurture, empathy and service.

Millicent Grant, President of CILEx, spoke passionately about her struggle to be given the opportunities to prove herself, how she found it in the public sector and her inspirational colleagues who told her to ‘do it fearfully’ – she also stated her belief that women do have different leadership styles – and that a breadth of styles is to be encouraged. Shanika Amarasekara, General Counsel described her varied career experiences leading to her current role at the British Business Bank and the importance of sensitivity in leadership. Oonagh Harpur, Leadership coach and former Linklaters’ partner stated “We will have arrived when men and women can lead in their own authentic way as we need different styles at different times.” Vidisha Joshi, Managing Partner at Hodge Jones & Allen spoke about her experiences at her firm where there is a heartening 70% female partnership.

Panel: Dame Jenni Murray and Her Honor Judge Joanna Korner CMG, QC, Crown Court Judge and former Prosecutor at The International Criminal Tribunal

Dame Jenni Murray then interviewed Her Honour Judge Joanna Korner CMG QC, Crown Court Judge and former Prosecutor at The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia about her experiences prosecuting three genocide trials relating to the Bosnian conflict. She spoke of her early experience at the Bar and her former pupil mistress playing a key role in her success.

How Do We Create Positive Change For Women Leaders in Law?

The next #SheForShe panel focused on insights from women in the wider public sphere. We listened to classical Hannah Kendall who told us there were no women composers taught on the school curriculum until 2017. She emphasised the importance of visibility, and the need to challenge unconscious bias and who we imagine can do certain jobs. Alina Addison, leadership coach and former Rothschild banker talked about her life experience and how her son’s autism was a catalyst for change, propelling her into the sphere of coaching.  Reena SenGupta, founder of FT Innovative Lawyers discussed her career leap was down to her deep interest for the project, her interest in others and how having helped people in the past will establish future connections – so give of yourself. Renee Elliott, founder of Planet Organic, explored her success through selling skills and not yourself; being passionate about what you’re doing and preparing for the hard questions.

Panel: Justine Thornton QC and the Right Honourable Lord Hodge, Justice of the Supreme Court

The following session was billed as The Reunion. An intriguing teaser – pleasingly arising from the first conference where Justine Thornton QC posed the then panellist, the Right Honourable Lord Hodge, Justice of the Supreme Court a question about the number of female judicial appointees. She was then inspired to apply to the judiciary and told her cohort 39% new deputy high court judges are female. They echoed the imperative stated by Lord Neuberger that judicial diversity is so important to the rule of law. Justine Thornton QC says don’t get despondent about knock backs – ff you don’t get pupillage/training contract, work around and come back.

Keynote: Lady Justice Thirlwall DBE, Deputy Senior Presiding Judge for England and Wales

“You don’t have a choice about being a woman! Do not allow yourself to be diminished!”

The closing keynote speaker, The Right Honourable Lady Justice Thirlwall DBE, Deputy Senior Presiding Judge for England and Wales, gave a moving, tour de force, final speech. She touched on the importance of having resilience – never be held back by the thought others will say you only got the case, appointment, silk because you’re a woman. She described her a visit to her old school the 6th form pupils, who told her about the First 100 Years project and re-enacted the (possibly apocryphal) race down Chancery Lane in 1920s of the women to become awarded the accolade of being the first female solicitor. She concluded with the stirring words: “Someone gave me a baton and I’ve passed it on!”

Darren Jones MP for Bristol West and former BT lawyer

We carried on the conversation chatting together at the drinks reception afterwards, where The Right Honourable Darren Jones MP for Bristol West and former BT lawyer talked about the imperative of  fighting against discrimination ‘For equality to exist and grow, men must stand up to and call out inequality’. He concluded that of course he has frustrations with the current debate about sexual harassment in parliament, but that ‘cultural changes come from all of us and that shoulder to shoulder, we will achieve change.’

With thanks to all speakers and attendees, and host Simmons and Simmons LLP.

Women in Law

As October and Black History Month comes to an end, Debbie Tembo reflects on her career journey and the importance of identity and diversity in her work.

Life in Cape Town

I grew up in the beautiful Mother City of Cape Town in South Africa. I went to the University of Cape Town to study a BA in Cultural and Literary Studies with a major in Film and Media Studies. I became really interested in marketing and brands, which lead me to study a postgraduate diploma in marketing management for another year.

From a young age I have always been the child that would push boundaries, whether it be convincing my parents that I absolutely needed to go on a Gap Year straight after school (which had never been done in our family) or being the first black prefect at high school or being voted “most likely to succeed” in my postgrad class at university. Our family was the very first black family to move into a fairly well to do white suburb in Cape Town, circa 1993 (very shortly after the release of Nelson Mandela). My dad was the head of an international seafaring NGO, which meant that I was surrounded by people of such different and international backgrounds to me, and this has fuelled my subconscious distancing of homogenous groups from an early age. My parents, like most black folk are religious people, but what they imparted to me more than religion was a deep sense of spirituality and authenticity, and I carry that in my professional life. I would definitely forego business if it meant that I needed to act against my better judgement and compromise my integrity. Authenticity is such an important value to me and when you’re a black female professional, I think it matters more.

British American Tobacco – From Cape Town to London

I was recruited into British American Tobacco’s global graduate recruitment training programme where, after an 18 month program, I was successfully offered my first managerial role. Despite a heavily male-dominated industry and work environment, I did well in my roles and it was clear that I was on a fast track path within my career. I had great support from sponsors and mentors within the business and I benefited from a strong coaching culture in the business. Interestingly, my sponsors, mentors and coaches were all men who believed in shifting the balance of female representation in business and they gave their best in support to myself and the many more talented women in the business.

Debbie at a British American Tobacco innovation conference

I also studied for an Honours degree during this time in Communication Science. As a result, in 2006 I moved with my husband to London on secondment to work at the global HQ in a new area of marketing within the business that was focused on innovation and how to do things differently, more efficiently and essentially push the boundaries in marketing. Here, I was the youngest member in the global marketing team and again, I got a massive amount of support – you don’t succeed in such an environment without being good at what you do and having bosses that have your back at every turn. After a year of piloting an innovation process globally, it was time for the next challenge, the one that ultimately lead me to bow out of corporate.

Taking a Corporate Break

My next role involved me being based in London, but travelling across the Middle East and Africa region every 2 weeks in a team that was just not ready to embrace different ways of working and challenging the status quo. The travel became too much and ultimately, I became someone in this role that was so far away from my core and who I am as a person that I was deeply unhappy.

After exploring alternatives to this role and personally deciding that I wanted to stay in London, I decided to leave BAT and take some time out for me. I don’t think anyone could really wrap their heads around why I would leave a promising career because of some sort of identity crisis, but it felt like the right decision. In that time I had my first child and 2 years later, my second and I was privileged to spend 6.5 years of their young lives mothering them.

During those years, I dipped in and out of work for a marketing events company, a strategic brand innovation agency, as well as partnered on a few start up businesses inputting into their marketing strategies so I was active in work in a non-conventional way, which is more common these days.

Finding a Work-Life Balance

I wanted to return to work, but I knew that I wanted to come back on my own terms and I knew that this was going to be difficult until I saw an ad for an Obelisk Support Marketing Manager. I was immediately drawn to the ethos of the business and thought, I can do this. In short, I didn’t get the marketing job, but Dana felt that I could contribute to the business in a different area and here I am 1.5 years later and I think we’re doing well.

I work with a team of not only smart, but nice people and that makes such a difference to work. There is no hierarchy in our structure, everyone can contribute, try new ways of working and get on with their work in the best way that suits them, provided we are all focused on the same goals and have the will to succeed. I really enjoy that no two clients are the same, even if they’re in the same industry! Diversity is a big current in my life and has been throughout my career and I enjoy working with the different clients that we do and tailoring solutions to suit their individual needs within their respective ecosystems.

Working in the legal industry is and challenging and there is always something to learn everyday. I love that Obelisk exists to change the way of working in the industry and I’m privileged to be a part of shaping the future of legal in this way – it certainly makes for some surprising conversations, but I can honestly say that more clients are coming round to this way of working and embracing the change, which is fantastic and hugely rewarding and matters not only now, but for future generations of lawyers.

Reflecting on Work during Black History Month

Looking back on my career, I have always had roles that were focused on growing a business, a brand, a category, a service in a different way that challenges the status quo and forces a different perspective and I love that about work.

For me, Black History Month is a celebration of black excellence, of which there are many examples all around us of men and women who are doing amazing things in the world to change the status quo for the generations coming behind them. Our Obelisk CEO and Founder Dana Denis-Smith always says, “that you cannot understand the present without understanding your past” and I wholeheartedly agree. Black History Month is also an opportunity to pause in the busyness of life and take a moment to reflect on the many, what I like to call, warriors who stood up for us, who self-sacrificed for us to be where we are today.

I would simply not be here right now in this moment, if it wasn’t for the many South African freedom fighters who fought for the end of segregation, including my dad who left high school to boycott an inferior education and later went on to finish his high school as an adult and to complete a theology degree in a democratic society. Those hero men and women changed my life and made today’s opportunities in the workplace possible for me. Yes, we have a long way to go to equality, but there are enough opportunities for me to seize and make a success in business and I don’t see the fact that I am black and a woman as an excuse or a barrier to that success – it’s the fire inside that fuels my willpower to succeed!

Advice to Her Younger Self

This is the same advice that I give my daughters – if something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. That’s your intuition, God, the universe guiding you, trust it always. Also, don’t justify yourself to anyone to make them feel better about the decisions that you make. Wait for them to ask you and then decide if it’s worth explaining. I think women spend way too much time trying to justify themselves and their decisions when they really shouldn’t have to!

Women in Law

Former Obelisk Support interns Maxie Chopard and Keshara Hallock take us through the portrayals of women lawyers on TV and how characters have grown and developed over time. They discuss the power of representation in popular culture in shaping societal expectations and gender stereotypes.

One of the earliest portrayals of a woman lawyer on American television was Mary Bancroft (played by Elsie Ferguson) in Scarlet Pages in the 1930s. The all-talking crime drama features Bancroft as a successful female lawyer in New York who acts as defense attorney for Nora Mason, a nightclub singer accused of murder. The twist in the plot comes when Bancroft subsequently discovers that Mason is the biological daughter she had given up for adoption.

Interest in female characters in the legal profession seems to have increased in the last decade. Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) in The Good Wife, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) in Scandal, Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) in How to Get Away with Murder and Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres) in Suits, are just a few household names whose on-screen lives we have become fully vested in.

Has the Portrayal of Women Lawyers on TV Changed?

One might be tempted to argue that the depiction of women lawyers on television has not evolved as quickly as one would like. Scarlet Pages capitalised on the novelty of a woman occupying a powerful position in a typically male-dominated industry. That Bancroft was a lawyer in Scarlet Pages was a fact that was referenced. She was never shown as doing anything particularly “lawyerly.”

The Ally McBeal Effect: Drama over Substance?

More than half a century later, Ally McBeal was all about the drama that ensues when the character portrayed by Calista Flockhart finds herself caught in a love triangle after joining a firm where her ex-boyfriend and his current wife also work. Once again, the focus is not on the woman lawyer acting in a professional capacity but the unfolding of her personal story.

Indeed, the juicy details of the leading women in law often seem to dominate the plot. Former lawyer and White House aide Pope’s affair with United States President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) is a central pillar of Scandal. Defence Attorney and Law Professor Annalise Keating’s affairs, multiple relationships and closet full of secrets have fuelled four seasons of How to Get Away with Murder.

Equality requires Complexity

At the same time, it is fair to say that women in law are increasingly being portrayed as more complex and nuanced characters. In How to Get Away with Murder, the mercurial, highly intelligent and unscrupulous Keating is fearsome, yet there are times when she appears vulnerable. Similarly, Pope’s groundbreaking role in Scandal has been described by The New York Times as, “possibly the most complex black female lead in television history.”

The marked shift from characters such as the perpetually self-questioning McBeal to the emotionally strong, professionally powerful, and personally complicated women in law on television we see today has been accompanied by a greater emphasis on women as competent professionals.

It is no longer uncommon to see a strong, confident woman litigator who beats men on her own terms. The no-nonsense, straight-talking Pearson in Suits comes to mind, as does How to Get Away with Murder’s Keating, who is often seen browbeating witnesses, opposing counsel and indeed anyone who stands in her path into submission. Founder and managing editor of Above the Law David Lated coined the term “the litigatrix” to represent such women who tend to more demanding than their male counterparts, to the extent of being pushy and domineering.

Empowering… or Emaciating?

The prevalence of women lawyers on television can be seen as empowering, particularly as they are often shown to be breaking the glass ceiling. Pearson, for instance, is the first African-American woman to work as a judicial clerk at the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and later becomes partner of her firm after leading a successful coup against the name partners.

As a powerful socialiser, the media makes its marks on both self-image and societal expectations. Professor Ric Sheffield who teaches Law and Society Kenyon College observed that starting from the 1980s, his 19-22 year old students seemed to have an acute understanding of what it meant to be a lawyer even though they had not been to law school. The students did not know famous U.S. female judges such as Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Elena Kagan or Sonia Sotomayor but knew Pope from Scandal. It was clear that his students had gleaned this knowledge from pop culture.

Portrayals of women lawyers on television could inspire and encourage girls to join the profession. However, not everyone is of the view that these characters are positive role models. Others argue that these female characters are detrimental, as they entrench gender stereotypes and normalise the disparity between men and women in the legal profession.

Shaping Fiction to Shape Reality

Are the women in law in the media a source of empowerment or disenfranchisement? What do you think? The jury is still out for us on this one overall…

That said, it is important to acknowledge just how far portrayals have come, and one particularly good example is Jessica Pearson of Suits, the Managing Partner of Pearson Specter Litt. Gina Torres, who plays Pearson reveals that for her, the character’s strength comes from the fact that “her drive and her ambition has nothing to do with her gender or cultural background”. Torres is right; Pearson’s role is equatable with her position at the firm. Her leadership, intellect and the respect she garners from her colleagues are all in keeping with the person at the helm of the firm irrespective of their race, gender or anything else. The portrayal is thus at one level reassuring, demonstrating a woman judged on skill, who has thrived in a meritocracy.

“Jessica was conceived as a man” – Gina Torres

Some might say Pearson’s presentation is not progressive in portraying women in positions of power. She is tough, straight-talking and physically domineering, towering over other characters, men included. Does she in fact reinforce the stereotype that it still in really is a man’s world and the only way a woman can be successful is to assimilate?We would disagree with this. Pearson is not void of femininity – yes, she casts a powerful figure and is business-like but this is hardly surprising; she is managing a corporation. Furthermore, Pearson is undeniably elegant. Her deportment and costume choices are symbols of grace as much as of self-assurance.

Work-Life What?

Aspects of her presentation, however, do make us question the industry’s accommodation of women or anyone who aspires to anything beyond their life at a powerhouse firm. Pearson’s life is the firm and this is not because she has to try that much harder to prove herself. It is the same for the male characters working at a senior level too. The show reinforces the idea that work-life balance is seemingly unattainable when at the top of the industry. Somewhat disturbingly however, we are not often made to feel as though anything is lacking.

It is hard not to notice that the workplace becomes the forum for all other activity. Characters constantly refer to each other as their ‘family’ and the most successful relationships are between co-workers, which seems to be a curious attempt to compensate for the fact that maintaining a life outside the firm is near impossible for them to achieve.

Non-Linear Depictions

The Good Wife is in this respect of greater significance for women in its depiction of the more modern struggle to merge career success and life or family. Alicia Florrick is as inspiring a lawyer as Jessica Pearson; she is quick, sharp and respected for being very good at what she does. However, and the clue really is in the name, she is a wife and a mother and the domestic space features as heavily in the show as the workplace. There are no illusions and the roles are quite realistically in conflict at times but in terms of female empowerment, this is still a positive step. It is more important for it to be shown that there are career-minded mothers than to depict only mothers or career women because we are uncomfortable with not having found a fool-proof equilibrium between the two yet.

Moving with The Times

The fact that the programme is not afraid to illustrate changing ambitions and priorities is also beneficial; Florrick is a Georgetown Law attendee, who leaves the profession to raise a family but a decade later wants back in. This may be because she has a monetary need but quite quickly she comes to value professional stimulation as much as she does being a mother. It is positive that this shift is shown without judgment and furthermore that after an adjustment period, it is proven that she is more than capable of performing at this level in spite of time away.

The Future is Yours. No, Really…

Finally, the way that Florrick’s relationship with the firm fluctuates, charting her desire to start her own firm and eventual return to the firm on new terms is powerful in expressing more modern values and mentality towards career progression. Her journey illustrates the increased importance of a feeling of autonomy even when working within a corporation and compares nicely to her senior, Diane Lockhart, who spent her life devoted to the firm she is now in charge of. Showcasing a woman who is unapologetic in shaping her career path proactively according to what she wants and not within the constraints of where she is granted to go by another is refreshing. The audience does not always approve of her decisions nor are they always fruitful but nevertheless her fearlessness is surely a powerful lesson for the next generation of women.

TV writers are clearly increasingly realising and exploiting the potential of female lawyer characters. Solidifying the image of success women lawyers on TV is an important step towards reinforcing this as a working norm for future lawyers of both genders. If television can help spark conversations of how the profession makes this work for women in reality as they advance in their careers, surely this is a bonus.

Next on the agenda ought to be getting British writers on board. Whilst we do seem to have a penchant for the female detective, female lawyers are decidedly few compared to U.S. TV series, but perhaps that discussion is for another article!

 

Women in Law

We recently looked at some positive trends in the legal industry concerning the rise of women in law, but talent retention and other factors can hamper this progress. How do we embolden the next generation of women in law and continue to forge a working culture that works for all?

Progress Status of Women in Law

The rise in women lawyers is largely thanks to the hard work of the men and women in the profession who have campaigned, advocated and led by example to create a more open, diverse culture in the legal industry. There is of course, work to be done.

Women are still disproportionately finding their careers and ambitions stalling as they take a career break or seek a better work life balance. Shockingly, we are seeing higher numbers of women enter the legal profession than men, yet there are still significantly fewer women than men in senior positions.

To inspire younger generations, we must give them the tools to carve out successful careers without gender discrimination getting in the way. Here are some simple starting points for us to keep in mind…

#1 Fight the Gender Gap

Fewer than 1 in 3 senior- and middle-management positions were held by women in the majority of 67 countries with data from 2009 through 2015. You’d think that rich countries would know better but when the BBC published their pay rates for their biggest stars in the United Kingdom, the public outcry on the gender pay gap was immediate. Radio 2 presenter Chris Evans topped the list on more than £2 million, while the highest paid woman was Claudia Winkleman, on between £450,000-£499,999, earning a mere 25% of the best paid male star.

Now that U.K. companies with more than 250 employees are mandated by law to publish details of the pay gap between their male and female employees, big law firms are going to have to be proactive about their gender pay gap. If the gender pay gap for partners at big U.S. law firms is an astounding 44%, if the UK gender pay gap is 18.1% for all workers and 9.4% for full-time staff, what will it be in the City?

More important, what is your company doing to advance equality?

Top Tips

The United Nations Global Compact published a Gender Gap Analysis Tool to help companies assess current policies and programmes, highlight areas for improvement, and identify opportunities to set future corporate goals and targets. Results are provided in a concise and clear format so companies can easily identify areas for improvement.

The Fairy GodBoss shares the three following successful strategies to cut the gender pay gap:

  • Stop the salary history reveal
  • Ask for transparency
  • Design a path to action

Last but not least, learn how to negotiate your salary, from the job offer to the annual promotion.

#2 Measure & Celebrate Progress

Inspiration from those who have come before us, and those who are around us should not be underestimated. To remind ourselves of what has been achieved and the progress that has been made reminds us all that we can truly make a difference and be part of the change we want to see in the industry – the First 100 Years is a particular example of this, plus you can also read about the progress of women in the law in Scotland in our recent article.

Likewise, awards and events to recognise all who are striving for change and have achieved success in the industry are important to maintain the momentum and provide incentives. It is also important to invest in, support and share studies, research and individual stories that tell us what needs to change and what areas still need to be tackled, to provide purpose to those coming through the ranks.

Top Tips

Celebrating progress of women in law starts by measuring how far your company has come in terms of gender equality, following up with sharing your company’s progress. It can be as simple as sharing news in a company newsletter to show how the firm values and monitors diversity in law.

To provide pointers as to what to measure, Bloomberg LP, the financial information and media company launched the Bloomberg Financial Services Gender-Equality Index (BFGEI) which provides “investors and organisations with ‘standardised’ aggregate data across company gender statistics; employee policies; gender-conscious product offerings; and external community support and engagement.” The index is not ranked and participants join by filling out a voluntary survey that is free of charge.

To go further, actively seek out and sign up to programmes and initiatives that provide awards and incentives for diversity measures.

#3 Provide Meaningful Mentorships and Sponsorship

Practical support from peers and senior colleagues is vital to fuel ambition in new generation of women lawyers. This includes support both before and after career breaks. As we have seen from a recent BCG study, company culture is the key factor in maintaining their ambition. A company that provides a formal mentorship scheme, and always seeks to develop the career of their employees as far as possible no matter what their circumstance can only benefit from more determined, driven and engaged workers. If you are in a senior or partner position, it may be time to look at options for mentorship in your firm.

Latham & WatkinsBank of AmericaTarget and Freshfields focused their initiatives on mentoring female employees to give them access to sponsorship and leadership positions that qualified women have been long denied due to conscious as well unconscious biases in the workplace. Target’s CEO Brian Cornell has, in fact, partnered with PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi to form a Future Fund to achieve 50/50 gender parity in the retail industry at all seniority levels.

Top Tips

Mentoring requires input from the whole organisation, not just the mentor/mentee. When implementing or updating an existing mentorship programme, start by conducting a survey  – find out what incoming lawyers want to get out of mentoring, and who is willing to be a mentor and what they would like to bring the role.

Set out a structure for each mentor to create a formal training plan with their mentee, with specific goals and objectives. Creating a coaching team who is able to assess progress and continue to provide mutual support throughout career progression.

#4 Create and Advocate for Women Returnships in Law

A particular barrier to women fulfilling their ambitions in law is the impact of career breaks. This is finally starting to be addressed within the industry with the introduction of training programmes for women returning to work after a career break, also known as returnships. These have been largely successful across other industries, with most acquiring a position at the end of the returnship. However, law firms have been slower to launch such programmes, and there have been some concerns about the amount of people who have managed to secure a flexible position at the end of the programme (something we intend to look at in more detail in a future piece!).

Top Tips

To help encourage the provision of returnships, a few big law firms also offer returnerships, such as Allen & Overy’s Return to Law (after career breaks) or ReStart (for people over 50) in the U.K., Herbert Smith Freehill’s OnRamp Fellowship (in the U.K. and Australia), Davis Polk and Wardwell’s Revisited (in the U.S.) or Proskauer Rose LLP’s CaRE (in the U.S.).

Along the same lines, several organizations, such as OnRamp Fellowship (U.S.), Path Forward (U.S.), Working Mums (U.K.) or Women Returners, provide information on available returnships and return to work support events, while working with employers and businesses to consult on the design and delivery of returnships.

#5 Hold a United Front Against Discrimination

We cannot afford to turn a blind eye or minimise behaviour that is discriminatory, unethical or disrespectful. Our collective response as lawyers, and as women should be of no tolerance, including when (or perhaps in fact, particularly when) the behaviour doesn’t directly affect us. A comment made in passing by a client, a pattern of recruitment decisions that don’t seem quite right – it can be easier to explain away or just accept it as ‘one of those things’ in a profession still dogged by gender bias.

Top Tips

It’s important to keep talking and support one another in these instances. For example, if you are on the receiving end of the comment, ask what was meant by it. If someone was on the receiving end, ask if they were OK and if they want to take any further action. Talk about diversity within your organisation, research what measures are in place and discuss other methods to create a more inclusive environment and tackle discrimination. At firm level, ensure that any incidents of discrimination or sexist language are formally recorded and disciplined where appropriate.

Ultimately, there is strong evidence of competitive and cultural benefits of gender diversity in the workplace (see for example the Credit Suisse report on gender diversity and corporate performance). This should mean that everyone should be openly and willingly offering support and provisions to help future generations of women in law achieve their potential. We all play a role, no matter how small it might seem, in shaping the future for women lawyers.

What would you do to empower women in law?

Women in Law

The judiciary was once a male-only bastion. Times have thankfully changed and with that, the female presence in the Scottish (and indeed U.K. judiciary) has markedly increased. Obelisk consultant Nicola Evans explores the history and progress of women in the judiciary.

In times gone by, access to the legal profession was governed by three factors: Gender, social class and wealth.

In Scotland, 1901, Miss Margaret Howie Strang Hall petitioned the court asking to be admitted as a member of the then-termed Incorporated Society of Law Agents. The courts refused, referring to the Romans refusal of allowing women to act at prosecutors. It was not until 20 years later that Miss Madge Easton Anderson became the first woman solicitor in Scotland and a further two years until Miss Margaret Kidd became the first woman advocate. Incredibly, Miss Kidd remained the only female advocate until 1948.

Judge Selection Process | Overdue Overhauls

Both England and Scotland have, relatively recently, had a considerable overhaul of the selection process for judges. Judicial selection is now much more transparent. In Scotland, the Judicial Appointments Board was introduced in 2002 and as its website states it was designed ‘to bring transparency to the selection process and to build a system in which the public, the profession and the politicians can have trust and confidence.’
In England, the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 established the Judicial Appointments Commission, which is now responsible for appointing judges. The 2005 Act specifically states that appointments must be made solely on merit.

However, the U.K. still has one of the lowest proportions of female judges on its benches, according to a report by the Council of Europe. If we take a closer look, we see the Scottish legal system continues to struggle with equality in terms of appointments. As of 2016, there were only 125 women working as advocates (who represent clients in the higher courts) out of 462 people who are members of the Faculty of Advocates.

Of Scotland’s 113 QCs, only 21 are female. Further, of the 31 judges in post only nine are female. Europe-wide, systems with the lowest percentage of women among professional judges were Azerbaijan (11%), Armenia (23%), Northern Ireland (23%), Scotland (23%), England & Wales (30%) and Ireland (33%), with an overall average of 51% in Europe.

Female Judiciary Role Models

There are several inspirational women of note in the judiciary. In England, Lady Hale was appointed Deputy President of The Supreme Court in June 2013. In January 2004, Lady Hale became the United Kingdom’s first woman Lord of Appeal in Ordinary after a varied career as an academic lawyer, law reformer, and judge. In October 2009 she became the first (and remains the only) woman Justice of The Supreme Court. As such, Lady Hale is the most senior female judge in the United Kingdom.

Lady Dorrian QC was appointed to Scotland’s second highest judicial post as Lord Justice Clerk in 2016. This appointment made Scottish judicial history as no woman has served at this level prior to this. Lady Dorrian, a graduate of the University of Aberdeen, was admitted to Faculty of Advocates in 1981 and served as Advocate Depute – the first woman to hold the position – between 1988 and 1991, and became a QC in 1994.

Lady Hale is a regular speaker about issues such as feminism, equality and human rights – and has notably been happy to be open about the ‘imposter syndrome’ that she has experienced. This characteristic affects more women than men and is the feeling that despite academic and professional success the person will be found out to be a fraud. Many studies have looked at this and found it to be a natural symptom of gaining expertise.

Success for Women in the Judiciary

Lady Dorrian has referred to only a modest amount of sexism in own her career – and that was largely in the sense that it was simply less familiar to have women appearing in court and conducting cases. She does not attribute her success to having a particularly pioneering attitude, but simply to working hard and taking opportunities that seemed sensible.

It is interesting to note that both Lady Hale and Lady Dorrian almost seem to downplay their respective success in the profession: a characteristic that people who ascend very hierarchical institutions often exhibit. Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead looks at this tendency and unsurprisingly, many of the case studies are female.

Family-Friendliness | the Bar vs Private Practice

Although not necessarily an easy option, the Bar has been considered a more ‘family friendly’ career option than private practice. Roisin Higgins QC, commented in the Scotsman newspaper that far from being a hostile environment to female advocates, there is the suggestion that for women hoping to combine a legal career with family, advocacy might offer the most family friendly path.

Remaining Challenges for Women in the Judiciary

Lady Dorrian has pointed out the real ‘challenges’ facing the future of the profession in relation to its composition, access to it and progression within it. In a recent conference, ‘Equality means Business’ in Edinburgh in May 2017, Lady Dorrian highlighted that the legal profession as a whole should be representative of the society which it serves. Without this diversity, the profession runs the risk of not being able to offer access to justice for a wide range of practice areas (often the poorly funded areas) or for a wide client base. To be respected, the legal profession has to reflect the society it represents.

Accordingly the benefits of putting equality and diversity as the focus of the profession, she points out, isn’t just about doing the right thing but is enshrined in legislation, putting duties of equality on the shoulders of employers and public authorities.

The profession should take heed and retain talent by constantly seeking to ensure it is nurtured in the correct way.

Nicola Evans has a background in commercial law having worked  in-house for an international company and also having lectured in law. Nicola works as a Consultant for Obelisk Support, specialising in commercial law and providing remote, flexible services.

Women in Law

Why do we find it so difficult to own our ambition and drive in the same way as men?

The short answer to the idea that ambition is a dirty word for women should be no of course it isn’t, how ridiculous. However, it’s unfortunately not that simple, yet. The way we talk about female ambition compared to male ambition (and indeed, the very fact we identify them as separate things) suggests there are still some prejudices when it comes to women aiming for the top.

There are lingering negative external attitudes towards women who are ambitious; but also internal conflict about ambition. It is often presumed that women do not have the same ambitions as men – or rather, that men are presumed to be ambitious by default, while for women it is an exception. With that and looking at the fight that other women have had to put in to gain their position in male dominated industries, many feel there is still no room for overt ambition displayed by women. We talk amongst ourselves in secret or in innuendo about our drive and passion.

Attitudes amongst women themselves are starting to change. There are interesting divides between younger and older women in ambitions as laid out in a Time Inc. survey in 2015. 48% of women in their 20s said they were “very” or “extremely” ambitious, compared to only 26% of women over 60. Younger women are also less likely to say it’s okay to not be ambitious– almost 60% said it was “not so” acceptable or completely unacceptable to be unambitious, compared to 44% of women in their late 40s and 50s.

So there remains a complex relationship between women and ambition as a result of sexist undertones in our society and its institutions, but does the problem also lie in the way we view patterns of work? The idea that long hours, constant ‘switch on’, endless meetings and trips are apparently the hallmarks of a driven, ambitious individual. Why can’t someone who is looking to work in a different way, or want to find a way to continue to progress their career around other commitments not be deemed ambitious too? Kevin Roberts, former CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi caused controversy in 2016 over comments about women not having the vertical ambition of their male counterparts. “Their ambition is not a vertical ambition; it’s this intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy… I don’t think [the lack of women in leadership roles] is a problem. I’m just not worried about it because they are very happy, they’re very successful, and doing great work.” Many felt he seemed to be saying that the lack of women at the top wasn’t a problem because they didn’t want to be there, rather than looking at the institutional barriers that prevent them being there.

It is assumed that having different priorities in life reduces one’s level of ambition, rather than considering the ambition that someone has to create a more suitable path to achieve the things they want, across ALL aspects of their life. Even men who are seeking to work in a different way are being branded as ‘not ambitious’ in comparison to those who are never at home.

At Obelisk we think that ambition in this century means working towards your goals and recognising that at different points in your life, your focus of ambition will change according to different priorities. It is time we felt comfortable with that. This approach allows for a ‘portfolio career’ path, which is non-linear and non-traditional and reflects not only the current economic reality that we see around us, but also the fact that organisations these days don’t expect ’employees for life’. As we evolve as a business we see the different ways that men and women of all ages are creating new ways of working that reflect their desire to work and balance their life. That is ambitious!

Anna Fels, writer of Do Women Lack Ambition? in Havard Business Review says we “have confused [ambition] with narcissism, with people who simply want to promote themselves at any cost. But really, what ambition is about is getting appropriate recognition for your skills.” And that should apply whether you work part time, full time, at home, in the office, or whatever way you choose.

So in order for ambition to not be a dirty word for women, we need to change how we define it, and not associate it with success at all costs or workaholic patterns. We need to start defining all of what we want in life – balance, manageable progression, new skills, and new experiences as part and parcel of our ambition. We need to re-examine our own bias and perceptions about ambition when applied to women, and we also need to challenge it when we hear those biases voiced by others. Say it loud and clear: I am an ambitious woman!

Obelisk In ActionWomen in Law

Resilience and confidence are key qualities that can sometimes be hard to keep hold of – particularly as a lawyer facing increasing levels of stress. Lawyer, life and career coach Janine Esbrand of LightBOX, spoke to us at Obelisk’s Friday Live event about the effect of stress on our productivity and self-esteem.

Janine Esbrand has a background in corporate law and works as an in-house legal counsel. During her time in corporate law she always wanted to help on more personal level. So, in addition to her consultant work, she now also helps other women with work transitions after motherhood as a certified life and career coach through her consultancy, LightBOX. Time and time again she has seen the issue of low confidence and resilience crop up, and she had plenty of insights to share on the subject.

Starting with stress management

Janine presented a shocking statistic that more than 95% of lawyers felt that their stress levels were extreme or severe. The pace of modern legal work is getting faster, with internet and technology advances meaning immediate round the clock responses are expected, and it can be difficult to manage client expectations in an overwhelming results driven environment.

Speaking about our responses to stress and how different types of people respond to high levels of stress and pressure, she referred to well-known study by Pennsylvania State University identifying people as Velcro and Teflon. People who suffered and persisted with unresolved emotions are Velcro people, whose negative emotions continue to stick long after the event, without good resolution.  People categorised as Teflon people managed to either resolve the stressful situation or just let it go and move on.  The study found that Velcro individuals had higher rates of chronic health issues a decade after the phone interviews, compared to the Teflon group.

The key message here though, is that we do have control over what type of person we are. We can become more Teflon by focusing on positive thoughts to increase our resilience and become more productive in stressful situations.

Learning to let it go

Discussing some stress management tips with the group, a number of techniques were put forward. The important thing is to find what works best for you as an individual. For some it can be taking a step outside gain some distance and allowing time to think clearly. Just five minutes can make a difference to the way you approach a problem. Some people start by asking: what is the worst that can happen? Then it is easier to focus on what has to happen now. It is vital to keep perspective and don’t ‘catastrophise’ the problem. Allowing yourself a daily lunch break – no matter how busy you are – can make all the difference, as without it your productivity is lower and the quality of work in afternoon suffers, increasing levels of stress.

Self-care is at the heart of stress management: Regular exercise, a switch off day during the week where you concentrate solely on doing something pleasant, and not relying on stimulants to get through all contribute to better resilience. One thing that was agreed on was the tendency for lawyers and their clients to expect almost robotic levels of work and efficiency – so it is important to set boundaries for clients and don’t set unrealistic deadlines for yourself. We all have the tendency to be ‘people pleasers’. Being more honest with yourself and with clients, and seeing yourself and them as human, creates a better working relationship.

With better stress management we can become more resilient. The more resilient we are the more naturally inclined we are to focus on positives and effective behaviour. With that, our confidence in our own abilities increases.

Characteristics of resilient peoplewonder-woman-power-pose

Purpose, flexibility, confidence and support are the four key characteristics of resilient people. Janine believes that little confidence boosts before daily tasks can help build towards overall confidence. One thing in particular she advocates is putting your body in a power pose for an instant confidence boost.

Confidence built to last

Lasting confidence is about looking within ourselves rather than relying on external factors. Identifying, reviewing, and using strengths in different ways each day increases positivity, vitality and self-esteem. Our strengths are not just our skillset; we also need to pay attention to our character strengths. Wisdom, curiosity, bravery, social intelligence, the love of learning new things – by identifying our top strengths we realise our sense of meaning and can start to see our career as a calling again, a feeling that can get lost in the day to day pressures we face. Using our top strengths each day leads to increased satisfaction and helps our confidence and resilience to grow.

 

Family & WorkWomen in Law

“It is fantastic to be able to provide a useful service despite lifestyle changes, and to be valued for what you can contribute.”

Tell us a little about yourself.

I am an ex-city asset finance lawyer, happily living on the Sussex coast, wife to my childhood sweetheart and mum to Podge the house rabbit, an uber-intelligent autistic 8 year old son and my ballerina/vet/future prime minister 5 year old daughter.

Why did you decide to go freelance and work for Obelisk?

I have been with Obelisk for about two and a half years. I moved into freelance work because combining family life and my city work pattern was becoming impossible.  After a short career break I felt that dipping a toe into freelance work through Obelisk might just work, and two and half years later it still is!

What has working in this way enabled you to do differently?

I work completely differently to conventional work patterns, working at any time during a 24-hour period and fully remotely.  This means I can do the school run, help with homework, have a life and still commit to the number of hours of work a day my clients require.

What roles have you had during this time?

Through Obelisk I have been placed in 7 different roles, three of which are still on-going. I have worked for IT, media and telecoms companies and also for a large online retailer. My roles have included everything from large due diligence projects, holiday cover, ad hoc support and projects spanning several months.  My work is incredibly varied, and my role for my clients varies from being their sole legal resource to being part of large team of in-house lawyers, to everything in between.

How do you work with clients?

I work fully remotely (with the occasional trip into London for a client meeting), and I prefer to work part-time for several clients at a time. In terms of how we communicate, on one of my placements we had a weekly “team meeting” which everyone dialled into, to update the team on their current matters and seek help/advice as needed.  That system worked very well for me, as being remote it is important to link into the wider team you are supporting.  Another of my clients Skypes me for regular chats and to give instructions, which again enables me to participate in a similar way as I would in an office environment

Have you been able develop skills or extend your experience into other areas?

My skills and experience are unrecognisable from those of the specialist city lawyer I used to be.  I have learnt to research things I need the answer to, draft without precedents and understand business need quickly.  My city-experience was 11 years of asset finance, but now I am also confident to review and advise on IT/media/telecoms and retail matters, which is an opportunity I would never have had in city private practice.  As a result, I am a much more well-rounded lawyer.

How has the legal services market changed over the course of your professional career?

It is unrecognisable since I did my first city vacation placement in 1998.  There was one career path then: you either moved up to the next PQE level, or you left.  Equally for clients, they had very little choice in terms of the legal services available to them, having to pay for lawyers’ office overheads and services which were not necessarily tailored for their needs, or hire full time permanent in-house lawyers.  Now there are so many paths available to lawyers, and clients have so many more flexible options for how to resource their legal needs.  So many of us find that our ambitions and lives change during the course of our careers, it is fantastic to be able to provide a useful service despite lifestyle changes, and to be valued for what you can contribute, using your life experience as well as legal experience.