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A partner’s advice to aspiring female lawyers

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Ahead of the Women in Law student conference next month, Shearman & Sterling partner Susanna Charlwood reflects on her career journey and explains why her gender has never held her back

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A first class degree, distinctions in both her GDL and her LPC and experience in some of the country’s top law firms — Susanna Charlwood has had a career aspiring lawyers dream of.

Reflecting on her journey, Susanna is open about the demands of working in the profession. But she is quick to tell Legal Cheek Careers that her gender has never been a barrier to her progression. She has seen a real increase in efforts by City firms to support women the effects of which, she believes, are starting to be realised.

Educated at Durham University, Susanna had an interest in law but only focused on a career in the City when, two years into her history degree, the opportunity arose to apply for placements at City firms. She liked what she saw, and a few years later found herself training to be a solicitor at Allen & Overy. She spent four-and-a-half years there as well as several years at fellow magic circle outfit Slaughter and May.

Susanna joined US giant Shearman & Sterling about three years ago. Though the culture of American firms has a reputation for being demanding, Susanna rejects the stereotype that working hours are so much higher when compared to UK firms as “completely untrue”. She explains:

I’ve worked, and have seen my colleagues work, at least as many hours at magic circle firms as we do here.

By the time she jumped the magic circle ship, litigation lawyer Susanna had been contemplating a future as a partner for a few years:

I really liked what I did and I was pretty sure I wanted to keep working even though I was also thinking about having a family.

And that she has done. Susanna was promoted to litigation partner in January of this year and — true to her word — her personal life has rumbled on too. The banking and finance specialist is currently expecting her second child with her lawyer husband (he’s at Freshfields). The pair already have a young daughter together, born 18 months before Susanna was made partner.

It sounds hectic, but Susanna doesn’t feel motherhood has compromised her career. When asked if she’s ever considered quitting the law to focus on her family, she responds:

It wasn’t something I considered seriously. I’d invested an awful lot in a career I enjoy and while as a working mother I can’t always do everything I would like with my daughter, I am happy with the choice I made for me and for my family.

Key to successfully juggling clients and childcare, Susanna says, are being organised and having a steady support network of whatever form:

My husband and I both contribute to our daughter’s upbringing and we are lucky to have found childcare arrangements which work well for our daughter and for us. Exactly how you make career and family work is a very personal decision but from my own experience and that of my close friends in the profession, I can say it is possible to manage both and to enjoy both.

It sounds hard work, but Susanna is living proof that women can forge extremely successful careers for themselves. She has never felt as though her gender has held her back, though she does recall a distinct male domination at partner-level when she was starting out:

I certainly noticed there were more male partners than female partners and it was a subject of discussion, but I don’t remember seeing it as a barrier to my progress.

Susanna is concerned that some women may be unnerved by the fact that women are in the minority at the senior levels of many law firms and by the daunting task of navigating promotions processes (tough for male and female alike) at the same time as major changes in personal lives. She explains:

The last thing law firms want is to lose female talent. This is now properly recognised and there is a lot being done to try to address the reasons why some excellent female lawyers who would have liked to continue may have felt unable to do so.

To the aspiring female partners of tomorrow, who may still be concerned about making it big in the profession as a woman, Susanna offers these words of wisdom:

Believe in yourself and recognise your value, don’t assume people don’t want to see you flourish and won’t go out of their way to help you — even if initial discussions may seem awkward. If you are thinking about a family, have a realistic plan about how you think you will continue a demanding, sometimes erratic, job. And communicate confidently on the subject. A mentor of mine told me, ‘Don’t ask permission; just do it.’ As long as you get your work done, it doesn’t matter where you are and people will just accept you may leave and work later from home or not schedule meetings very early in the morning.

Thankfully, diversity statistics are gradually improving across the profession. People, Susanna observes, make decisions about their careers for all sorts of reasons. What she hopes is that gender in itself will increasingly cease to be one of those reasons.

Shearman & Sterling will be hosting its annual Women in Law conference on 3 November at the firm’s London office. The event is aimed at students and the deadline for applications is this Friday. Apply to attend here.

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