Old School Senior Female Lawyer Role Models
International Women’s Day has doubtless caused many a working woman to reflect on their experiences to date. As a senior Rape and Serious Sexual Offences Prosecution Barrister, I experienced nearly 20 years of life as a woman at the Criminal Bar, and more generally gained a good understanding of the expectations upon female lawyers. Anecdotally, when a senior female barrister (now judge) berated her former pupil for considering flexible working in family law to fit in with her home commitments, on the grounds that it would “damage” her practice, and in the same way, colleagues raised eye brows at me for volunteering to work with Death Row Attorneys in Kingston, Jamaica in their Defence of Death Row cases, suggesting I should somehow worry about the effect on my UK practice, I soon came to realise that the Bar lacked senior female role models whom I could look up to or with whom I could empathise. Likewise, recently, when enquiring of a senior partner in a law firm how she came to be the only female partner out of 19, I was disappointed to hear how she described “needing to think and act like a man.”
Flexible Working Fantasy
At the Criminal Bar, for a serious trial advocate, it is obvious that flexible working is not an option. Jury trials take place every Monday to Friday during court hours and that is that. Myself and colleagues were used to working blocks of time and then taking a week out of court whether to catch up with admin or to take a break to be with families or holiday.
To service the demands of the profession, heavy reliance on childcare, and more often than not a full time nanny, was the norm. As a 22 year old interviewee, sitting in a pupillage interview hoping that you will be the one out of 800 applicants lucky enough to be taken on, I would bet my last penny you would not be thinking about how best to time/ people manage your practice in 15 or more years time. You’d just be happy with the job.
Job for Life
Unusually perhaps in this modern age, the expectation is still that law is a career for life too, albeit you might be climbing the ropes to a judicial career or being taken on as Queen’s Counsel. Nothing wrong with that, particularly when considering the average investment costs of student and training contract provider to qualify and begin practice.
Being a Woman AND having it all
What of the other women lawyers, who want a successful career AND positive family life, without the need to think or act like men? We are women after all! My advice would be to start planning early, and be honest about what you are and are NOT prepared to compromise, whether at work or at home.
What Female Lawyers can do
- Firstly, define what “success” means to you. Be honest and authentic about this. To be successful means many different things to many different people. Only when you have a clear view of what it looks like to you can you make plans to achieve it. When discussing a recent judicial appointment with a very senior colleague, he was to tell me he would not be applying to the Bench or for Silk because success to him meant defending those who would otherwise not have a voice to do so themselves. This was his own version of success; this for him was “enough”.
- Consider whether the area of law in which you practice or the promotional level to which you seek to go is conducive to the lifestyle you wish to achieve over time, whether financially or personally. If it is, or you can make some tweaks to achieve this, then start doing so early doors. Set out your stall, so that instructing solicitors, clerks, partners and senior colleagues know your working arrangements and can progress/ manage your practice/ career accordingly.
Be prepare to do the necessary
- If not conducive, what to do about it? Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “I’m not happy about something, but I’m powerless to do anything about it”. I know former Criminal barristers who have successfully strategised and re-trained to specialise in Family Law to provide a certain degree of flexibility over and above the jury trial conundrum. Likewise, my Corporate and Executive Coach Training began 2010, I completed my thesis 2012, all whilst working in full time practice at the Bar; I was playing the long game. It wasn’t until last year that, with mounting family commitments, I finally knew it was the right time to call time at the Bar. It’s only when you focus on what it is you want, however far ahead that might be, that you can put the smaller plans in place and formulate an action plan to make it a reality.
One to One Coaching
I am a Corporate and Executive Coach empowering professionals, especially female lawyers, to achieve career ambitions whilst creating congruent lives. I specialise in 1-1 Coaching during which issues of career progression and life balance frequently emerge, particularly for career- break returners, so please do email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like more information.
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