The age of pioneers was not so long ago. When she joined Lovell White & King in 1977 as a fee-earner, MacDonagh was one of just seven female lawyers at the firm. Each and every one of the partners was a man.
MacDonagh says she did not feel intimidated by the situation, but admits that her career strategy at that stage was simply to take things one step at a time. “You joined and the first thing you wanted was a really meaningful career and good work and good clients. Nowadays, people – not just women, men as well – have got a much more sophisticated idea of their career path. I think 20 years ago, people thought it was just good to get to a stage and then reassess.”
In 1995 MacDonagh became the first female managing partner of a major City firm. But the honour of being Lovells' first ever woman partner fell to Harriet Dawes, who broke the mould in 1980. MacDonagh, who became a partner herself the following year, recalls that one or two of the partnership's older guard failed to notice that times had changed. The day after she was made a partner, MacDonagh attended the partners' luncheon. “It was a sort of tradition at the end of the meal that you got a coffee from whoever was sitting on your right,” she says. “I was sitting next to this very senior partner who turned to me and said, 'Would you like a cup of coffee, old man?'”
Far from being offended, MacDonagh says she was only too happy to be treated like everyone else: “It was an enormous relief, really, that somebody looked at you as being just one of the blokes.”
And it beat being treated as a man's sidekick. “It is true to say that, in the early days, if you turned up [to a meeting] with a chap – even if the chap was your trainee or articled clerk – people would assume that the woman was the assistant. That's obviously changed completely, but, in the early days, that was the assumption.”
Another common problem was being mistaken for a secretary. “I did once take my secretary to some kind of secretary of the year thing at the Savoy,” says MacDonagh. “I was the only lady boss on the table and the guy who was sitting next to me said, 'So, who do you work for here?'”
With so many more women in the profession, there is now no excuse for such behaviour. For example, approximately 50 per cent of Lovell White Durrant's lawyers are female. Although the firm's 32 women partners make up around only 19 per cent of the partnership, MacDonagh believes it is only a matter of time before the balance between male and female is more even.
In any event, women are already more of a force within the legal profession than many people realise, says MacDonagh. “I do think women have made huge strides in the support areas of large firms. There are some really excellent women in training, personnel, office services. That's where women have really excelled in the support areas.”