Despite the gender balance in today's profession, women lawyers still face particular challenges in reaching senior positions. This feature presents five things women can do to improve their prospects

Women are still not making it to the top in the legal profession in significant numbers. Despite their making up over 50% of new entrants, only 15% of senior management are women. Even worse, the pay gap is a massive 42% at some levels of the profession – far greater than the national average. It has been estimated that at current rates of progress it will take 85 years for women to reach parity in the workplace.

What is the solution to this? Equal pay is important, yet in my view women should be far more ambitious than this. After all, as Marilyn Monroe said: “Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition.” If you’re a woman lawyer who is or wants to be a leader and make the profession better for everybody, then it’s time for you to embrace purpose-driven leadership. By that I mean leadership that embraces your values and desire to make a positive difference to others – not just aspiring to financial reward and status in the conventional sense.

Climate changing

Take Scottish lawyer Sandy Abrahams. Born and bred on Colonsay, where her father is a bee keeper and oyster farmer, at the age of 33 she has left the security of international law firm Nabarros to help set up Lux Nova Partners, the UK’s first law firm focusing solely on clean energy. She specialises in facilitating renewable energy and carbon reduction schemes in the UK and around the world, from wind farms in Jordan to solar energy projects in Kenya.

Her example shows that it is possible to combine commerciality with making a positive contribution to the world. She is a fantastic role model of someone who refuses to accept the status quo and is courageously making a difference. Her advice is: “Identify your goal and stick at it. Don’t let those who doubt what you are about sway you from your path.”

She goes on to say: “When I decided to become an environmental lawyer I applied to many different law firms. At interviews I would explain why I wanted to be a lawyer – to make a difference, to work on projects that would be beneficial and specifically those that would tackle climate change. A problem, I explained, that would end up affecting just about every client of that law firm.

“Many interviewing me didn’t ‘get it’. In fact, one queried why I wasn’t applying to work for Greenpeace. However, I was undeterred and stayed true to my vision. It worked in the end!”

We are currently suffering from a bad case of LDS – leadership deficit syndrome. Permanently disappointed with our politicians (with the possible exception of Nicola Sturgeon), it seems that short-term, unimaginative, exclusive, target-driven leadership is the norm. Sadly, the legal profession is not immune from this.

It is time to move away from the leadership model of the lone, top-down, usually male, senior partner or CEO who has all the answers. Gaining ground is the collaborative, inclusive style of leadership, and women are ideally suited to take up this mantle, and in turn show men the way to adopt a different quality of leadership. It’s time for a wave of truly inspirational women to take the lead in the legal profession.

The transition from competent lawyer to inspirational purpose-driven leader is not obvious, and you may feel you have no idea how to go about it. Here are five tips:

1. Find your right habitat

Know what your values and strengths are and then find a work environment that matches them – or create one if it does not yet exist. If you are not in the right habitat for you, it’s hard to thrive. To use a metaphor from nature, if you’re a pine tree you will never flourish in a desert. I started my career as a commercial litigation lawyer, but at heart I wanted to help people resolve their differences quickly and constructively. Once I left private practice and set up business as a mediator I felt much more at home.

2. Cultivate yourself

Women tend to suffer from self doubt more than men. Typically a man will apply for a promotion if he thinks he meets 60% of the criteria, whereas women feel they have to be 100% qualified before they put themselves forward. It’s only in recent decades that women have entered the professions in significant numbers, and it’s easy to forget what a radical shift this is after millennia of being confined to the domestic sphere. We still feel the need to prove ourselves.

In order to thrive in my career and build a successful business I had to actively grow my self confidence – I couldn’t just take it for granted. Working with a coach to build solid self esteem from the inside out was invaluable. And once you have it, don’t neglect it, but continually invest in developing yourself.

3. Grow and nurture your network

Women thrive in community; isolation is a killer. It’s vital that you create a supportive network of women. Seek out communities where you can be yourself, share your doubts and your successes and drop the mask. It’s challenging being a woman in a predominantly male environment, so make sure you counteract this by building a good support system.

As well as drawing sustenance for yourself, make sure you support other women. Going back to Marilyn Monroe, legendary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald tells this story about her: “I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt... she personally called the owner of the Mocambo [the top jazz club in LA], and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again”

See everyone as a potential collaborator rather than a competitor. We all have a unique contribution to give to the world, so another woman’s genuine success is never at your expense.

4. Get comfortable with visibility

To be a leader is to be visible, and not everyone will like what you do or who you are. It can be so tempting to stay in the comfort zone of being a backroom lawyer quietly doing good work and avoiding the spotlight. I spent years being the trusty right hand woman to my male mentor, taking care of all the details and briefing him thoroughly. It was very comfortable until I realised he did not share my passion for mediation and the only way for me to pursue it was to strike out on my own.

If I’d stayed in my comfort zone I would have stagnated and not fulfilled my potential. Yet as an early advocate of mediation I had to tolerate years of ridicule from those who saw mediation as a soft option. Knowing what I stood for and having a supportive “tribe” of fellow mediators who shared my values were essential for my resilience. Plus learning not to take myself too seriously!

5.  Be ambitious – for a better world

True leadership is about creating something of value that was not there before. Purpose-driven leadership looks beyond profit as the only measure of value and includes the wellbeing of people and the planet as key metrics. Don’t be content with the status quo. Take some time to reflect on what difference you would really like to make, and then make this your top priority. Leaders focus on the things that will make the most difference, refusing to be distracted by trivia. Sandy Abrahams was not satisfied with the status quo and not willing to compromise on her vision of a world powered by clean energy, so she created a new type of law firm which had not existed before.

So, what do you stand for? And what is standing in the way of you going for it? Don’t hold back, for as Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In, says: “I believe that a world in which 50% of our countries and companies are run by women and 50% of our families are run by men would be a better world.”

The Author
Liz Rivers was formerly a commercial litigation lawyer with Eversheds and one of the UK’s first mediators. She now specialises in helping talented women to become purpose-driven leaders who exude both warmth and credibility: for details see She also works with Core, the business mediation provider, and teaches on its flagship Mediation Skills for Leaders course. 
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