Women in law: The critical career factors to focus on

There has never been a better time to be a woman contemplating a career in law.

With firms pushing for gender parity – or even a greater number of female recruits – at graduate entry, and a range of support in place to develop those women as they progress through their careers, the legal sector looks a world apart from the place in which some of the more experienced women I coach had to carve out their careers.

Although the majority of firms finally appear to have ‘got’ the importance of ensuring women are well-represented at partner level through the talent pipeline, it doesn’t mean that the path to fulfilling their career ambitions will be an easy one.

The facts, if anything, still point to a different experience. At the top of the profession, analysis by the likes of The Lawyer shows an enduring deficit of women at partner level.

Meanwhile, according to recent research we conducted among young female lawyers, although they are entering the profession in increasing numbers, many are also deciding it is not the place where they want to commit themselves for the long term – particularly as the issue of family and children becomes a more important consideration.

There is no doubt that law firms have a part to play in shifting a culture where there is – obstinately and inexplicably in some areas – still a resistance to efforts which ensure women are proactively encouraged and supported through their careers.

But young women must accept they too have a role to play to at the beginning, and in the early years of their careers, if they are to succeed later on.

Based on my experience of coaching women here are the critical areas they should focus on:

  • Building a good network – career progression is still driven as much by relationships as talent, for men and for women. Investing in building connections with clients, peers in other law firms and, critically, internally in your own firm is one of the most important tasks for a prospective lawyer. Your network represents the people who will follow and support you through your career so build a good one.
  • Become a specialist – masters of specific knowledge areas are always in demand and a career in law is one place which lends itself to developing niche specialism. Being a specialist gives you a highly marketable point of difference which will help you move from firm to firm and ensure you are in demand through your career.
  • Don’t sleepwalk into motherhood – at the start of your career you may think you can have it all. But the long working hours of a lawyer, combined with a commute, a working partner and children mean that for many couples, one person has to stop working. Think about how you want to balance work, life and family and make sure that as your career progresses you are taking control of your choices and that you don’t become a stay-at-home-mum by default.
  • Do your due diligence on every firm you join – There are plenty of progressive law firms out there. These are the ones who have a rising proportion of female partners, have specific policies and support for women around the maternity transition, and, critically have a culture which supports flexible working. Researching what it is really like to work for your prospective employer is the best way of pinning down whether it is a firm which stifles or nurtures female talent.

A final piece of advice for young women is to remember they don’t need to emulate the behaviours of the men around them to be successful.

Women bring a distinctive set of skills and way of thinking to the workplace as managers, leaders and peers whose value, in a man’s world, is increasingly recognised to the people who matter most to law firms: their clients.

Emma Spitz has over twelve years experience advising city law firms and coaching female lawyers on their career development.