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Four different perspectives from female lawyers about being successful on your own terms

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Stories from the Women in Law Conference at Shearman & Sterling in London

As training contract application season re-opens, you may be wondering how gender will impact your career. Most global law firms recruit more female graduates than men but despite this women continue to be outnumbered significantly at partner level.

Becoming partner often coincides with wanting a family, but that’s not the only reason why women leave the profession at mid and senior level in greater numbers than men. While “things haven’t changed as much as we’d hope”, Shearman & Sterling partner Susanna Charlwood told the Women in Law Conference earlier this month, “I have seen lots of changes during my career. It’s good news for your generation”.

1. The woman who is a partner and a mother

One big change is technology. “It means you can work remotely, and better manage your home life and kids”, explains Charlwood, who was expecting her first child when she joined Shearman. On returning to the firm post-maternity leave, Charlwood was made partner.

But it’s not easy: “Being partner is a very different job to being an associate. You do more than legal work and it takes a lot of time. It’s a lot of business development work, developing opportunities with clients, managing teams and dealing with the financial side of the business,” she says.

Going from associate to having equity ownership is a big leap in a relatively short time. Charlwood — who, amongst other matters, is currently advising an airline in cartel damages litigation — makes it clear that “it wouldn’t be possible if I wasn’t happy as both partner at Shearman and as a mother”. After giving birth to her second child, Charlwood returned to the firm and continued her role as partner.

To many of us that sounds impressive. You might think it’s unrealistic to enjoy both a good career and a happy family life. To that Charlwood says: “No. But it depends what expectations you have of your career, marriage and role as a mother.”

Described as “effectively a third parent”, a live-in nanny supports Charlwood’s family. You’ll have to make choices to fulfil your responsibilities to your clients and your team: “I don’t take my daughter to school everyday… But we’re close even though we don’t see each other as much as I’d like. I love being a mother,” she adds.

Crucially “the enormous amount of support at Shearman means that women can have time off before coming back. Lots of thought is being put into keeping women involved so that they don’t leave their careers”, continues Charlwood.

2. The woman who found success in balance

Law firms are starting to put structures in place to safeguard female retention rates. For example, Shearman provided mother of three Anna Duncan with a maternity coach, who was in contact with her throughout her maternity leave. “In the lead-up to returning to the firm my confidence was at its lowest, I thought I had ‘baby brain’. Without the support of a maternity coach I might never have come back,” she recalls.

After her first child, Duncan only had a short return to work before embarking on another maternity leave to have her second child. She decided to re-focus on her legal career after her second child, but after a year she was preparing for her third. She reflects:

“The partners were open to discussions. With three very young children, coming back to work full-time wasn’t going to work for me. Nor would part-time in the traditional sense of working a set number of days per week — to do transactional work you’ve got to be flexible and available. We structured an alternative. I get a call when a deal is on and the partners need more resources. In practice this means that I spend a lot of time in the office when deals intensify, it could be weeks or months. Last week we closed three large solar projects in Egypt, it was hectic. This week I was carving pumpkins with my children and hosting a Halloween party. Sometimes I feel like two people. You almost need a split personality”.

Importantly, “success means different things to different women”, says Duncan.

The low percentage of women in senior roles is not entirely a law firm issue — some women just don’t want to become partner.

Duncan admits that she sometimes looks at her peers and thinks, “had I not taken three maternity leaves I could’ve been further down the path, with a different title and closer to becoming partner”. However, she also feels that “it’s not for me right now, and doesn’t fulfil my current desire to be both an actively involved mother and a lawyer”. She continues: “For me, success means fulfilling both roles. While some weeks pass and I don’t feel I have achieved balanced in both roles; I need to look at balance over longer periods and on this basis I am very happy with the balance I am managing to strike.”

3. The rising corporate star

Increasingly heads of legal teams at banks and chief legal officers at large companies are women. When advising US client General Electric on its megamerger with Baker Hughes, senior associate Vikki Fabian remembers: “It was refreshing to hear strong, opinionated women leading the phone calls”. Law firms don’t operate in isolation, and industry-wide progress needs to happen to effect change.

The push for greater diversity at law firms is slowly changing percentages: “Our clients want to see diverse teams representative of their own structures,” explains Fabian.

But there’s “no easy fix for changing the numbers at the top, and we lose many women at mid and senior level”, she adds. Working in the Middle East, Fabian was regularly the only female in a meeting of 15+ people.

Often “we can be our own worst enemy, we need to have more confidence in ourselves” she stresses. Women need to “be ambitious”. She urges: “You’re the law firm’s future partners of the future, so go for it.”

4. The trainee carving out her future

However you define your own success as a lawyer, being inspired by role models is key. To progress in law, “we have to be active and proactive about finding inspirational women, and making sure our voice is heard”, believes Olivia Merrett, a first seat trainee in Shearman’s financial regulatory group.

That can be difficult when there are less women in senior roles to look up to. “When you Google search leading figures in any field, the first names that tend to come up are men,” adds Merrett.

Sexism is of course a hurdle in the male-dominated legal industry, but we’re likely to face it before we enter the profession. “University was the first time I experienced the idea that women can be treated differently purely because of the fact they’re women,” says Merrett.

If a law firm is open about discussing these issues, “it says a lot about its culture, especially if the firm encourages open conversation about why and how things should be improved,” she continues. Indeed, students don’t always pay sufficient attention to women’s initiatives at individual law firms when applying for vacation schemes or training contracts.

Find out more about Shearman & Sterling

Once you join a law firm you genuinely like, all four women stress the importance of striving to build a strong network of women. As Charlwood explains: “Being a good lawyer is also about making relationships and developing them. Think of the business side of the job, expand your network within the firm, and introduce yourself to as many people as possible.”

What about the role of men? “At senior level, women are in the minority. We want to change this ratio, and our male colleagues have a role to play in that. It’s in everyone’s interest to keep the best quality talent we have,” says Fabian. Indeed, there is much work to be done.

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