What does it mean to be a woman in law today?
In honour of International Women’s Day this week, Today’s Wills and Probate asked professionals in the industry to give us their thoughts on what it’s like to be a woman working in law today and any challenges they face.
Claire Davis, Solicitors for the Elderly (SFE) Director & Partner at Howells Solicitors said:
“When I qualified in 1985 women were a rarity amongst a predominantly male profession. I remember that some male clients felt it entirely appropriate to ask questions about my age, how long I had been qualified, was I married etc. Many would assume that I was the secretary and were either rude or at best condescending toward me. I practised under my maiden name, as I worked in the family firm alongside my uncle and father, so working under the same name helped. After I married, I was told that I would have to pay a fee to change my name on the solicitor’s roll; I was extremely frustrated and disappointed that my male counterparts never faced such a request or cost. Today I still use my maiden name like many of my female colleagues.
“Due to the pervasive assumption that women would sooner “give up” their careers to start a family, which I’m not convinced has altogether been erased, the chances of progression were significantly more difficult to obtain. I also believe – though I cannot prove it – that we were paid significantly less than our male colleagues. If you did decide you wanted children, juggling a full-time workload with childcare was extremely difficult: women were not offered flexibility working hours, or able to work from home.
“Today, thankfully, these offerings are more commonplace, enabling women to do their job whilst also managing their family or personal commitments, or co-sharing these with their partner. The number of female solicitors is now higher than the number of male solicitors and the opportunity for women to progress and succeed at the top level is far greater. Female solicitors are now respected and have an equal role in the law. Sadly, I would still say that the top roles are predominantly held by men, particularly at high street firms and in the regions – so there’s still some way to go to attain true equal opportunity.
“Overall, the pressures on women in law are probably higher than thirty or forty years ago. The working hours are considerably longer than when I started, with offices kept open through lunch and into the evening. Technology has made our lives easier, in some ways, but it has also made us accessible at all hours of the day. Previously clients could only reach you by letter or phone within the confines of the working day. This has created a far greater imbalance between work and family or personal commitments.
“The specialism of Elderly Client law didn’t exist when I started my career, and making a Will was something we threw in as a “freebie” when you bought a house. Nowadays a woman specialising in both Private client and Elderly Client Law covers a huge range of both technical and soft skills – which is why accreditations such as SFE’s is so important, whether at the beginning, middle and end of your career.”
Amanda Simmonds TEP, STEP Deputy Worldwide Chair said:
“It is lovely to have so many talented female colleagues. When I joined the profession in the late 1980s very few women specialised in private client but now women are often in the majority in their teams. Women coming through in this way is borne out by STEP statistics where we are seeing more women joining STEP each year.
“I think the challenges are the same whether you are a man or a woman. With many of us working from home and the increased work produced by the pandemic, it is how to connect with and obtain instructions from clients who are shielding or are not used to video technology. Certainly the video witnessing of wills, which STEP has worked on with the MOJ, has helped us progress instructions in circumstances where we cannot meet clients face to face.”
Ally Tow, Senior associate at Boyes Turner LLP talks about the challenges for women in law. She said:
“Whilst things have changed a lot for the better for women in the legal industry, I think there’s still remains challenges for women working in law today, the main one being women progressing their careers to partner level. Whilst more than half of practising solicitors are female, women only account for about 30% of partners in private practice. Despite the dynamics of modern families in today’s society it often still remains the case that women bear the greater responsibility for child care. The ability to work flexibly can therefore be crucial for women to manage their home and work lives but a consequence of requesting flexible or part-time hours can often result in an obstacle to promotion.”
Heledd Wyn Director of Private Client at GL Law added:
“We are very much a part of the workforce as much as men. In our team, apart from a retired consultant, we are all female which is great.
“The same challenges we all face – complex client needs, the ability to be able to respond quickly to matters and balancing work and home life.”