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Breaking down barriers

I attended an event this week, hosted by DWF in Manchester, which was extremely thought provoking and raised a healthy debate around the barriers females face in the legal profession. Four incredibly influential legal professionals in the Manchester market made up the panel – Joy Kingsley, Senior Partner at JMW; Amanda McAlister, Head of Family at Slater & Gordon; Kerren Daly, Partner in Employment and Head of the Education Sector at DWF; and Catherine Leech, Partner in the Serious Injury team at Pannone (now part of Slater & Gordon). These ladies have excelled in their careers, Joy Kingsley in particular being named as one of the 10 most innovative lawyers in the UK by the Financial Times in 2010, and Amanda, Kerren and Catherine all receiving praise not only in the North West but national commentaries for excellence in their respective fields. Despite coming at the law from different angles, all shared experiences regarding barriers females can face in the legal progression, and some common themes shone through. To reflect on a few –

Both Amanda and Catherine began their careers working in high street offices of small firms, earning their progression to the top of their careers through hard work and determination. Lawyers who believe the only way to excel in their careers is to join national and international law firms at the outset of their careers are wrong. Working in small offices, having to deal with a variety of clients and issues and the ‘rough and tumble’ of the high street, can be excellent training. Working on legally aided family matters (in Amanda’s case), and personal injury slips and trips (in Catherine’s case), not only gave them nitty gritty experience of the real world, but the determination to progress and take on more complex work.

Business development is key. As a legal recruiter I always impress on candidates the importance of drawing out any business development or networking in a CV. There is always room for ‘back office’ lawyers, those with the technical legal expertise to manage deals and run cases. However, to progress and reach the top of the ladder, business development and work winning is crucial. Amanda McAlister is a wonderful example of a lawyer who rolled her sleeves up and shaped her own legal career. Instead of settling for legally aided family work, she got out into the market, and slowly but surely started to develop a network and build a reputation as a go-to lawyer for privately funded family work. Both Amanda and the rest of the panel have seized every opportunity that has come their way, carving hugely successful legal careers not through chance – but through hard work and visibility in their respective markets.

So whilst the panel agreed on some key themes during the debate, it became clear that the experience female lawyers face in the legal profession can vary hugely. Whilst Joy, Amanda and Catherine have worked in an environment where equality between males and females has always been prevalent, Kerren’s experience in the corporate sector has been vastly different. Family law and personal injury law have enabled Amanda and Catherine respectively to juggle a successful legal career with home life, whereas the experience in the corporate/commercial world can be male dominated and less conducive to having a family and achieving equality. However, this is clearly not a hard and fast rule – the legal profession has moved on hugely and experiences inevitably differ depending on sector, firm and team. Joy Kingsley, as an example, has managed to achieve an environment of complete equality whilst building hugely successful commercial practices at both Pannone and JMW.

Debate will almost certainly continue into the barriers females face in the legal profession, and this panel certainly sparked a hugely thought provoking discussion. It will be interesting to see how in a rapidly growing and busy legal market how law firms will continue to deal with the situation of family life and part time working – often a taboo subject at interview but becoming ever more prevalent in a legal world where the vast majority of entrants to the profession are female.

For more information please contact Louisa Phillips or visit our website BCL Legal.

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