Ed note: This is the latest post in the ‘If I knew then what I know now’ series, where leading members of the legal profession share their wisdom with the next generation of wannabes.
The interview question that sticks in my mind most is: “Will your husband mind if you have to work late?” Looking back on that particular moment, it is more a case of what I wish I had done, rather than what I wish I had known. But a conviction for common assault probably would not have helped me to get a training contract, writes Baker & McKenzie’s Lawyer Hot 100 listed partner Monica Kurnatowska…
As it was, I answered in a rather anodyne way – something about being “very committed to my career” – and got a second round interview. But it is difficult to say whether that was due to my answer, or a sudden realisation on the part of the magic circle partner interviewing me – 20 years after the enactment of the UK’s sex discrimination legislation – that his question was rather unwise and maybe he needed to cover his tracks.
It is perhaps fortunate that, after I’d attended the second round interview, I didn’t get an offer from that firm. One of the problems with the “Will your husband mind if you have to work late?” attitude is that it helps create a belief that women need to think and operate like men in order to get on. It’s not a healthy philosophy. Fortunately, more companies, and belatedly, law firms, are beginning to realise this.
As I have found out during my career, being able to be yourself is still one of the most important factors in success. If you are authentic, you can focus on your own strengths, and build real relationships with clients. The lawyers who do that go furthest.
That’s not to say that it is enough for firms to simply allow women to be themselves – far from it. Frequently women also need to be encouraged to put themselves forward. If they are not doing so, then firms should ask themselves why. Commenting on their Hot 100 list, the editor of The Lawyer, Catrin Griffiths, gave the example of a law firm which initially put forward five men for its nomination – omitting the woman who was eventually selected. “The fact that we got 46 women in the Hot 100 isn’t because we had institutional help. We went there and found them,” she said.
Many firms agonise about how to increase the number of women partners. They should start by asking themselves why isn’t there a woman in a particular pitch team, or leading this client seminar, or on this committee, or included in this award submission. Then they should start institutionalising the idea that, all things being equal, women need to be included – and not just on a token basis.
Of course, some tips for progressing your career apply equally to women and men. One of the things I wish I’d know as a junior lawyer was how important it is to go with the flow. You don’t know where your career will take you; there will be many twists and turns. But chances are that those twists and turns will continue for 30 or more years. So be open minded to opportunities rather than setting your sights on a particular path at all costs.
I sometimes find that trainees have fixed ideas, and will not contemplate anything but their first choice of practice area on qualification. Yet in my role now as a partner at a big international law firm, the skills engaged are pretty much universal: understanding what the client wants to achieve, applying the law practically, thinking around the business solution, negotiation, building the client relationship, project management, and getting the best out of others. Most of these skills will be exercised, to a greater or lesser degree, in the majority of private practice roles – and, I am willing to bet, in-house as well.
What does career success look like? You find out along the way. Some may define it in terms of achievement: making partner, general counsel or head of a team. To me, it’s still about having fun and getting to grips with new challenges.
Monica Kurnatowska is a partner in Baker & McKenzie’s London employment team. The Essex University graduate was featured in this year’s The Lawyer Hot 100 list.