Shearman & Sterling’s Women in Law conference in London explored ways to boost gender diversity at the top
The gender demography of the legal profession has been a contentious topic for years.
An area that has been focused on, in particular, has been the disconnect between the percentage of junior legal posts filled by women, and those in more senior positions.
So where do all the women go?
The legal profession has long been accused of structural sexism for the way it favours men, at least in senior roles, and that message is making many law firms feel increasingly uncomfortable. Yet the gender debate is a complex one.
Speaking at Shearman & Sterling’s Women in Law Conference (pictured below), held at the global firm’s London office earlier this month, partner Yas Banifatemi dismissed claims of deliberate sexism in the profession.
She resisted the idea that being female is in some way an external barrier to making partner, and instead attributed the numbers to conscious career choices.
Working in a law firm, Banifatemi explained before dashing off to catch a train to Paris, is hard work and intense. Becoming a partner is not the be-all and end-all of forging a successful legal career. And more and more associates are primarily concerned with striking a more relaxed work-life balance.
Banifatemi (pictured on the panel, below left) spoke with a sense of hope that the figures were reflective of past generations and are changing, and will continue to change over time.
But what about those women that do want to become partners?
The Shearman & Sterling team prides itself on its receptivity to female — and male — requests for flexible working.
Nick Buckworth, managing partner of the London office, stressed that it is critical for the legal industry to retain the best and the brightest talent- male and female.
And if female employees are failing to reach top positions in our industry then it is imperative we understand why and fix it. The mothers on the panel were testament to this. When asked to describe the biggest challenges that they had faced in their career, all of the female panellists dismissed the idea that being a woman was in any way a barrier to success.
Acknowledging that taking time out of a career to have children is not something that men have to manage, Susanna Charlwood (pictured above, far right), mother of one and full-time counsel at the firm, explained that having children and maintaining a successful legal career was doable — with the right support.
Agreeing was lawyer Anna Duncan (above, second from left), who has three small children and a successful career. Anna works as a consultant, choosing this flexible option to enable her to balance work and home life.
Taken as a whole, the panel’s message seemed to be that increasingly confident women will use their strengths to fill senior roles in ever greater numbers. And if becoming partner is not your career goal — whether you are a woman or a man — there are alternative career paths within law firms to help retain the best talent.
Looking ahead, there is a particular enthusiasm at firms like Shearman & Sterling to see more women progressing through to partner level, whether by the traditional route or via an alternative career path.
THE ADVANTAGES OF BEING A WOMAN IN CORPORATE LAW
The panel also identified a number of insights — which are of the type typically shared by female mentors with their mentees — that are, it was argued, crucial in furthering the aim of gender diversity.
1. Women bring unique skills to the table
Drawing on her own experiences, Duncan urged female lawyers to empower themselves in any business scenario. If someone isn’t interested in what a woman has to say, then make them interested. Open your mouth and surprise them, then everybody will want to listen.
2. It’s important to stand out in a big firm
Laurence Levy — who heads Shearman & Sterling’s European Mergers & Acquisitions group — points out that, while law firms do continue to push for diversity, there is still less of a female presence, certainly at higher levels. In a big firm, it is important to hold on to your personality — which Levy believes is one of the top three key traits of a good commercial lawyer — and with lower female representation in firms’ senior ranks, it could be easier for women to make their mark and stand out.
3. Women have a tight support network
In a male-dominated profession, first-seat Shearman & Sterling trainee Sharzad Shini believes that women also benefit from a particular camaraderie that exists between them, and create valuable support networks in different ways, which is essential within the workplace. Shini is very thankful to her female mentor for guiding her through the first steps of her legal career — though she cited her ultimate inspiration as her mother, a strong, female role model who has always successfully juggled working and family life. Seeing women in positions of power, like those on the panel, has a positive impact on young lawyers and students as they begin to forge their own path in the field.
4. Maternity leave can be a benefit
Duncan believes that taking a career break to have children enabled her to gain a fresh perspective on her role in the firm and approach her work differently.
5. Gender diversity is attractive to clients
Like other commercial firms, Shearman & Sterling’s clients are big banks and businesses. The gender diversity debate is not exclusive to the legal sphere — these clients are also keen to have a diverse workforce, and instruct law firms that mirror theirs.
6. Women bring a different skill-set to the workplace
Buckworth pointed out that women tend to adopt a more holistic, creative standpoint when approaching a problem. This is an important skill, and one which often proves useful on corporate deals and cases.