Women in Law

“For all the moms out there, I was playing for you today.” Serena William’s on court interview after finishing runner up in the Wimbledon final on 14 July 2018 resonated with me. I have spent the past 8 years championing women back to work – when they believed they were ‘just a mum’, I believed they could be whatever they wanted to be.

Irrespective of their profession, I cannot think of a better role model for mothers to return to work than Serena – she acknowledged in the press conference that a couple of months before she didn’t know “how I was, how I would be, how I would do, how I would be able to come back; it was such a long way to see light at the end of the road.”  Do these questions sound familiar to new mums? Of course they do. But hearing the self-doubt that does not spare even a most accomplished athlete like Serena Williams is both familiar and refreshingly honest.

In a survey we carried out for Obelisk Support, all those we interviewed said they stopped work because when they became mothers they couldn’t juggle work and family and often they found employers not being open to flexibility.

Last week, Obelisk Support turned 8. I founded the business to change the way work was outsourced in the legal sector to be more inclusive and for sure, not to alienate a fantastic talent pool – mums. Our mission from the outset, was to empower lawyers to get back to work from home and thus to make sure that talent remained active in law.  About 80% of our 1,000+ consultants are women looking to balance personal responsibility and work, and many would not have thought working flexibly would be an opportunity available to them in their chosen profession. Since 2010, we have seen the stock of working mothers rise and rise and it is great that last week we had the most visible returner mum to date take to the global stage in Serena Williams, just 10 months after having her baby girl.

With a little help from Serena, here’s what I learnt in 8 years of championing lawyer mums back to work:

#1 Take the Opportunity

One of our first client jobs involved a mum of 3 coming all the way from Bristol to work for a couple of days in London. She needed to cut her teeth on a routine corporate due diligence transaction to able to measure her level as a lawyer; she had been out of work for 7 years and was keen to earn some of her money to spend on Christmas presents, as it was just around the corner. Taking the opportunity was the best decision she made – not only did she secure further assignments with Obelisk, while working from home, but with time she ‘graduated’ into a permanent role in a local firm.

#2 Take it One at a Time

Especially when returning on a freelance basis, taking it one job at a time is a great approach not just to understanding how clients work, but also how you want to work. There are new ways of working that allow you to test the water before committing to a full return. Sometimes the flexibility is offered after a settling in period, once the client gets comfortable with the lawyer skills set and communication style. Getting back to doing even an ad hoc piece of work can help pave the path for a higher volume of work.

#3 Stay In the Game

There is no doubt that having a longer career gap makes clients ask more questions, and a lawyer can find it harder and harder to explain away the gap. Some businesses carry out ‘gap analysis’ of CVs that go as far as needing to prove the number of children by providing their birth certificates! If this doesn’t persuade you to stay in the game, however little, I don’t know what will. However, that’s not to say that we haven’t had returners such as Jane that show a long gap doesn’t make your return impossible.

#4 Work On Your Game to Get Better

Some clients refer to returning mums as “rusty.” Newspaper headlines welcomed Serena back in similar fashion earlier this year when she first competed after having her girl. But it didn’t take long before the ‘rust’ was shaken off and she made another Grand Slam Final.

If you have the will to work, then you can improve the skills and keep getting better. Excellent advice for those that think the law changes so quickly you can’t keep up and therefore it’s better to stay out. You’d be amazed how quickly the knowledge returns with a little positive focus on improving all the time.

#5  Continue On Your Own Path

Many mums don’t have their sights set on a career ambition when they first return. Whilst board positions or leadership roles could come, the pressure of achieving too quickly can also be a reason to drop work altogether. So take your time, as long as you stay on the ‘path’.

#6 Don’t Make Any Excuses

Once you decide to return, and businesses make decisions that rely on your presence and contribution, it is only fair that you take work on a ‘no excuse’ basis. Being professional is critical to success and your attitude at work can create the best or worst impression for a client. Once you commit, be reliable and understand that you are dependable at work and at home.

#7 Your Priority is Your Baby

I know of no parent that doesn’t agree with Serena in this respect. By being open, she has yet again given permission to working mothers to talk about their kids. We are no longer living in a time when kids need to be hidden out of sight but similarly, she said that she is disciplined in separating work from her time with the child. She has set a clear timetable to make time to train in the morning after which she spends the bulk of her time with her daughter.

#8 Be More Ready

Before starting a role, it is important to prepare –read about the client and the type of law, ask questions and be ready. Understand what you wish to achieve and how you need to fit in to do the best you can during an assignment.

Ultimately, The Choice is Yours

You can be whatever you want to be if you want to go back to work – and there’s no pressure to do that as having a child is a completely full time job. But to those that do want to go back to work, “you can do it, you can really do it.”

Making Work, WorkWomen in Law

On 12 July 2010, Obelisk Support was founded. Now one of the fastest-growing independent businesses in Europe, Obelisk Support has become a leading legal services provider with a purpose – to make human first a priority. To celebrate how far we have come with our clients and consultants, here is a true story that illustrates how putting human first and how working differently can make a big difference in the legal world.

Returning Lawyer

This UK-qualified lawyer trained at a City law firm from 1996 to 1998 and worked in their corporate department until 2000 in international securities offerings, M&A transactions and general corporate and commercial work. In 2000, she worked as assistant editor on Global Counsel magazine and in 2001, took a career break for family reasons and raised four children.

Twelve years later in 2013, she heard about Obelisk Support through a friend and with her children in school, she was ready to return to a professional career. She onboarded as an Obelisk consultant and in February 2015, interviewed to work for White & Case in their advisory practice within a busy private equity team. They wanted someone with corporate experience, someone who would be happy to muck in and help out. This was perfect for E who was selected out of four lawyers and joined the team shortly after.

E’s story is a very inspiring one for anyone who thinks that they’ve been out of the legal world for too long. When you are determined and hard-working, you can do it.

Corporate Lawyer

Bilingual French/English, this UK-qualified lawyer started her career as a paralegal and then joined Puxon Murray LLP in 2009 where she trained and qualified as a corporate solicitor.  It was a small firm (two partners) with a mainly SME- client base but she gained great experience in corporate, litigation and some IP, trademark work. She had done some translation work as well, and had experience in telecoms (company sale/ agreements/ regulation/data protection).

She left in 2014 as she really wanted to progress her career and became a freelance lawyer.

In 2014, she found out about Obelisk on LinkedIn and signed up as an Obelisk legal consultant.

In April 2015, White & Case asked for “a lawyer on 3-month contract, a lawyer to support some senior lawyers in their team with general corporate work, private equity and private company experience.” She interviewed with two other lawyers and was selected, starting right away. The 3-month contract ended up lasting over a year at which point, White & Case was so enthusiastic with her work that they offered her a permanent position.

For D, a freelancing career was a springboard to permanent employment in the legal industry.

Obelisk turns 8

Making Work, WorkWomen in Law

On 12 July 2010, Obelisk Support was founded. Now one of the fastest-growing independent businesses in Europe, Obelisk Support has become a leading legal services provider with a purpose – to make human first a priority. To celebrate how far we have come with our clients and consultants, here is a true story that illustrates how putting human first and how working differently can make a big difference in the legal world.

This UK-qualified banking lawyer started at CMS Cameron McKenna in 1991 and rapidly climbed the corporate ladder. After six years, she was recruited by ING as an in-house lawyer advising on corporate and institutional finance. Primarily responsible for advising all levels of staff in corporate banking (including senior management), she was vice-president of the legal department.

Six years later, in 2003, she took a three-year career break and, in 2006, worked for a British law firm until 2009.   

In early 2013, four years into her career break, she read an article in The Wall Street Journal about Obelisk and was very interested in the model and the commitment it made to reactivating female talent. Almost 20 years PQE, she was ready to get back in the legal world.

In December 2014, through Obelisk, she became legal consultant for her former company, ING. Her alumni experience gave her a unique insight into ING’s culture, making her both a perfect culture fit as well as the lawyer with the right experience. All her work is done remotely, from home. Her work was so appreciated that, in March 2017, ING asked her to take on some additional work on another project in corporate finance.

Obelisk also recognised her as one of its star consultants at our annual awards in 2016.

Obelisk turns 8

Making Work, WorkWomen in Law

On 12 July 2010, Obelisk Support was founded. Now one of the fastest-growing independent businesses in Europe, Obelisk Support has become a leading legal services provider with a purpose – to make human first a priority. To celebrate how far we have come with our clients and consultants, here is a true story that illustrates how putting human first and how working differently can make a big difference in the legal world.

This UK-qualified lawyer trained at a Silver Circle law firm and specialised as a corporate lawyer post qualification, before acquiring solid expertise in prime finance at two different investment banks. However after several years in-house, she found herself at a crossroads.

Balancing work and parenthood was difficult, even on a flexible schedule, and she had to consider her career progression.

A few months later, she stopped working at the bank. After a three-year career break, interested in flexible consulting, she contacted Obelisk Support and became an Obelisk legal consultant. Shortly after, the right role came up for her.

Linklaters  was looking for legal support within the Financial Regulation Group. It was a perfect match with this lawyer’s expertise. Given her seniority and depth of expertise, feedback from partners at the law firm was very positive. They found her very thorough and careful, very good at taking points away and working through them, and good at finding appropriate knowhow in the group.

Obelisk turns 8

Making Work, WorkWomen in Law

On 12 July 2010, Obelisk Support was founded. Now one of the fastest-growing independent businesses in Europe, Obelisk Support has become a leading legal services provider with a purpose – to make human first a priority. To celebrate how far we have come with our clients and consultants, here is a true story that illustrates how putting human first and how working differently can make a big difference in the legal world.

Tobacco Company

This UK-qualified lawyer trained at CMS Cameron McKenna from 2003 to 2005 and went on to work in their Mergers & Acquisitions department until 2007. Thanks to her experience, she joined the corporate legal department at Channel 4 where she supported on commercial and corporate work. In 2009, she went on to work for a UK Government Department, supporting aircraft financing transactions, commercial contracts and requests related to the Freedom of Information Act.

Then, she went on maternity leave.

In 2015, after a six-year career break, she was ready to get into the workforce and contacted Obelisk. We thought that she was both a great lawyer and a great person.

In 2016, a global tobacco company gave her the break she needed to regain her legal footing. They had “an unprecedented amount of M&A activity and were looking for a full time legal secondee to do M&A work.” They interviewed her twice and, impressed, offered her a role at the client’s offices. This was a fresh start for this legal consultant who’s been actively working for Obelisk clients ever since and won an Obelisk award in 2017.

Obelisk turns 8

Women in Law

For women who work in the legal industry, being a lawyer is a daily occupation that reflects years of study, practice and experience. It didn’t come in a goodie bag or as a perk of being single and young, like some of the comments below might suggest. Female lawyers are passionate about their job and at Obelisk Support, we know how challenging the path of women in law can be in a gender-imbalanced society. We deal with this everyday. Which is why we put out a call to female lawyers on social media, and asked this simple question: What are you sick of hearing?

All the replies we received are real-world examples of everyday sexism in the legal industry, coming both from men and women.  If you want to add to the conversation, don’t hesitate to contact me at [email protected] This is a work in progress and we hope that by exposing these sexist things, those who’ve used them will think twice in the future and will endeavour to be better humans.

‘We need to look more diverse when we do x, y, z event – would you be able to speak at this event?’

Sure – and thanks for mentioning my credentials and expertise when you asked me to speak… (But of course it’s an opportunity to get your own back by wowing the crowd with your expertise and insight!)

‘Can you put together the pitch book?’

I was asked to prepare it because I was the only woman on the team. The senior (male) partner inevitably got to assign the pages to whomever he wanted, and the only time I can remember leading on the pitch itself was when the GCs of the corporate clients judging the beauty parade were both female.

‘I’ve invited [name of male colleague of equivalent seniority] to the pitch – that’s OK with you isn’t it?’

Only hitch is that said male colleague had zero background in the sector and zero connection to the client. Help me understand: how has he been invited to the pitch, exactly?

‘You must be leaving for a better work life balance…’

No, and in fact my spouse noted years later that I had more all-nighters working in-house than I did in a firm.

‘Please make coffee for this client.’

When I was a junior lawyer at a Magic Circle firm in Paris, I was invited to join a client meeting and was very excited about the opportunity. When I walked into the meeting room, the lead (male) partner asked me to make coffee for the client. I was the only female lawyer in the room and felt humiliated to be asked to make coffee but walked out to do as I was told. The irony of it is that I’m a tea drinker and have never drunk or made coffee before. It turned out the coffee I made wasn’t very good and they asked someone else – a female secretary – to make a second batch.

‘“Dear Sirs”’

Heading in a correspondence addressed to an all-female law firm in Australia. Come on, is it that hard to do your homework? If you’re trying to sell me something or work with me, do your due diligence.

‘Do you feel guilty leaving your kids in the morning?’

Well, do you? If you’re asking the question, you’ve got some serious soul-searching to do but regarding the person you asked, it’s none of your business. There’s this thing called personal life, a detail really, and you’re obviously out of it.

Which brings me to my personal favourite…

‘If you’re here, who looks after your kids all day?’

I absolutely hate the “guilt” one. Seriously? Firstly, it’s not your business, secondly, are you implying that I should be at home with them right now?

‘Yes, well of course women take time out to have babies’

This, after mention of gender pay gap/ lack of women partners, etc. I proceed to explain that the pay gap exists from graduate positions onwards, and that career gap is only a small part of the reason for the pay gap, which is much more about entrenched discrimination and patriarchal norms in the profession and wider society…

‘What sort of work does your husband do?’

Seriously. Several years ago, I was interviewed for a position as a solicitor in a medium sized CBD commercial firm. There was a panel of three (all men). I was asked a series of questions about my family and childcare arrangements – namely did I have children (yes). They then asked who looked after my daughter when I was at work and what sort of work my husband did – was it flexible? These were serious interview questions in the middle of the interview!

If they’d been interviewing a man, I very much doubt they would have even thought to ask these questions. Imagine, ‘What sort of work does your wife do?’ and try not to laugh.

‘How do you manage at the Bar with children?’

Good question! How does anyone, really? I bet that no man is ever asked that question. This drives me insane, particularly when it comes from men with young kids.

‘How do you find working full time?’

Because, you know, I have suddenly become incapable of holding a full time job because of the fact I have kids.

‘Why are you getting emotional?”

When refusing to compromise on an issue for a client. A male counterpart would simply be considered to be stepping up to protect his client’s interests. ( No, I wasn’t crying at the time!)

‘But you have four of them, shouldn’t you be home?’

So, it’s ok to “neglect” two but four is unreasonable? Let’s draw a line somewhere, shall we? Two kids, three kids – fine. Four kids – big no no.

‘Oh, I thought you worked full time?’

It’s 9.30am! This coming from a woman without children. The fact I was at the office until nearly 8pm the night before had evidently escaped her when commenting on my “tardiness”.

‘You’re not the secretary?’

Particularly when I was a younger lawyer having to say when I telephoned another lawyer’s firm ‘it’s Jane Doe, solicitor’ otherwise it was often presumed I was a secretary – no offence to secretaries!

‘It must be so hard working when you’ve got kids’ (twins)

Yes, it bloody well is. But what is worse is the judgment that accompanies being a working mum and lawyer. You’re written off professionally (heaven forbid if you’re single too), you’re seen as an inconvenience, your career frankly nosedives if you dare to seek work-life “balance”. So your options are 1. never be around your kids because you’re trying to prove yourself at work, or 2. expect your career to falter.

‘We couldn’t find a woman, that’s why it’s an all male panel today’

If you’re finding it hard, what you’re lacking is determination. It is extra work, yes, but it’s worth it. Also: avoid having a ‘token woman’ and aim at two or more women on your panel. It’ll be more credible and genuinely more diverse.

 ‘We’re aiming for 26% female by 2030’

In real life, a male partner of a law firm said this at a women in law event. That is so offensive, why even bother trying!? Also – who came up with 26% as a goal? That seems so random. There aren’t 26% of women on Earth, it’s roughly 50/50. How about 50% as a goal?

‘We don’t believe in quotas, but rather getting the best people for the job’

Right. Then, why do you have an overwhelming amount of men, none of which are more qualified than the female lawyers, partners in your ranks?

‘We don’t need flexible work policies, we just support our people to do the right thing’

Somebody needs a refresher on 5 company mistakes that prevent flexible working?

‘Your poor little boy needs you’

I remember being livid (then very upset) when a woman said that my “poor little boy needed me” and how terrible that he was in child care. Meanie.

‘Maternity leave’

It’s parental leave or, depending on the terms, primary carer leave. I’m yet to see a policy that says “you must be female to access this policy.” Any language that ties workplace rights (or lack/limitations thereof) to being a woman will hold women back.

Continue the conversation by contacting us (details in introduction).

P.S. Thanks to all the lawyers who contacted me for this feature and to Dana Denis-Smith, Obelisk Support CEO, for sharing our media request on her social media channels. It definitely helped reach female lawyers around the globe.

P.P.S. Each comment has been anonymised but otherwise, reprinted without modifications.

 

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!