Podcast: ‘There were only three women in the whole firm’ — corporate law pioneer Fiona Woolf on gender diversity in the law

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By CJ McKinney on

We’ve come a long way since the 1970s — but not far enough

Fiona Woolf

When Fiona Woolf became the second ever woman to be Lord Mayor of London, it was hardly the City solicitor’s first foray into a male-dominated environment. Early in her career, the energy specialist joined the corporate law department at Clifford Chance at a time when there were only three female solicitors in the whole firm.

Nowadays, there are actually more women than men practising as solicitors. The Law Society revealed earlier this month that the profession is now 50.2% female. But partnership is still dominated by men, and Woolf — who became the first ever female partner at CMS in 1981 — thinks that it’s no longer good enough.

Speaking to the new Thomson Reuters legal podcast The Hearing (embedded above and also available on iTunes and Spotify), hosted by Kevin Poulter, the former Lord Mayor said: “The statistics on female partners actually fell back during my time in office [she was President of the Law Society in 2006/07] from 25% to 22%”. Over a decade on, two thirds of partners are still male.

Woolf blames the “intense law firm focus on chargeable hours” rather than “talent development” — particularly when it comes to women who have had children.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do on that front”, Woolf says. “There was a period when it was considered career suicide to take a break. If you said you were going off to have a baby you would be put into some sort of siding, and the siding never got you back on track. It was a complete waste of talent”.

One organisation that does better than most, apparently, is the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The CPS rarely comes in for praise, but Woolf says that they “really value the talent that they have and keep people engaged when they’re on career breaks”. There’s “no excuse”, in this day and age, for other organisations not to keep up with the public sector on retaining female talent.

She told Poulter that as a student, the young Woolf was down to study chemistry and geology at Keele University but took up studying law after running into a law professor down the pub and being convinced to attend his lectures. It sounds like more fun than UCAS applications anyway.

And she reveals that it’s not just today’s law grads who obsess over which firm has the sweetest office. With offers from several big firms, Woolf says that she chose Clifford Chance “because they had the best view of St Paul’s Cathedral from the 16th floor”.

There were only a handful of other women working at Clifford Chance then. Woolf can still remember the names of all the other female associates at the time she joined the firm: there were two. She was the only woman doing corporate work, but didn’t find it particularly lonely or isolating: “everybody treated me as one of the boys”, Woolf says happily.

Nor did she experience any direct, dramatic discrimination — but plenty of stereotyping. Woolf recalls her interview for the council of the Law Society, who assumed she was a family lawyer.

They said, ‘but you’ve been nominated by the Association of Women Solicitors? That was why we asked the AWS to nominate someone — we were looking for a family lawyer’.

On being informed that she was in fact a corporate lawyer working on a massive energy project, “their jaws dropped”.

The sight of a woman making corporate deals wouldn’t drop jaws or raise eyebrows now, but it’s still particularly challenging for women to get ahead. Young female solicitors could do worse than heed Woolf life motto: “Get lucky and say yes”.

“It makes people laugh”, Woolfe admits, but “the serious message behind it is that you can actually create your own luck. You can, if you think about it, be in the right place at the right time. I’m a big fan of development plans. And the message behind saying yes is that it involves you getting out of your comfort zone. There’s nothing more delicious than feeling that you have, by rising to a challenge, learnt something, and you’re now in a different place than you were before you said yes”.

You can download The Hearing — with Kevin Poulter for free via iTunes, SoundCloud and Spotify

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