The task of breaking down the old boy network is ongoing, but huge strides in cultural diversity have been made in the legal sector since 1987

Twenty years ago, Robert Perkins at Moore & Blatch, a Southampton-based firm, wrote to The Lawyer detailing the kind of support that “lady lawyers” would need if they were to combine motherhood, marriage and a rewarding career. “A first-rate trained career nanny (…) proper domestic arrangements (…) possibly a willingness to pay boarding school fees (…) an understanding and co-operative husband,” the letter states.

Letter to The Lawyer,
13 August 1987:

“Lady lawyers understandably and properly seek equality in status and remuneration. The basic necessities for a mother and wife to take on the responsibilities and put into effect the dedication that is required of a successful lawyer must include:

a) A first-rate trained career nanny with regular back-up for nanny’s off-time, holidays etc – not the teenage daughter of the neighbours who helps out.
b) Proper domestic arrangements concerning garden, cleaning and cookery.
c) Possibly a willingness to pay boarding schoolfees.
d) An understanding and co-operative husband.

Putting aside the deeply ingrained prejudices of hundreds of years, my wish is that the lady entrants to our profession should understand what is required if they are to achieve their ambition of full equality. It is perhaps a lesson which should be imparted in the earliest years at university and certainly at law school.”
Robert Perkins, Moore & Blatch

Perkins’ text may sound quaint now, but he was making a progressive point. Having a successful career is as dependent upon individual circumstances as it is upon individual ability.

In 1990 The Lawyer found that 56 per cent of women who had entered the profession in 1977 had left within a decade. It wasn’t until 1988 that Britain had its first black silks – Leonard Woodley and John Roberts. And the relatively recent introduction of diversity monitoring in firms means there is no data across all social groups for that period.

Prejudice was much more explicit 20 years ago. Michael Webster, chair of the Black Solicitors’ Network, recalls: “At law school one of the country’s leading playwrights made racist jokes in a keynote lecture and it didn’t make front page news, I can tell you.” Racism from an early client led him to have to “take a stand”.

Susan Aslan, a partner at Howard Kennedy, was asked in a trainee interview where she envisaged herself in 10 years time. “I said I imagined myself being a female partner and the interviewer smirked, saying he didn’t think there would be any female partners. I thought: why would I want to work in such a firm?”

Such views were defended publicly, even by senior management. In 1988 Mark Sheldon, a senior partner at Linklaters & Paines, said discriminatory questioning at interview level was “important. If someone is going to leave after six months and we have to train them, then it’s relevant.”

The prevailing ethos inevitably affected people’s choices about how they organised their lives. “I had three children in less than three years, taking the minimal leave – about three weeks – which many then did to signal commitment,” says Laura Carstensen, a former partner at Slaughter and May. “Regrets? Absolutely – but if I had done otherwise would I have made it? Not sure.”

After having been out at law school, Tim Hailes, associate general counsel at JPMorgan Chase, says he “went back in the closet” when he started his training contract at Wilde Sapte because of nervousness about how the partners would react. Workplace culture has always varied enormously between top- and mid-tier firms and between the capital and the regions. “It’s so easy when you’re in London to have a London-centric perspective,” says Geraldine Cotton, who runs the Association of Women Solicitors Returners Cambridge-based Course.

Aslan would agree. The Lawyer’s 1992 survey of women partners placed her firm at the time, DJ Freeman, at the top of the league with 28.3 per cent. Clifford Chance, Linklaters and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer all struggled to scrape more than 8 per cent, while Slaughter and May was at the bottom of the biggest firms with just 6 per cent . “Women often don’t go for the super large firms because they’re afraid they might be discriminated against,” says Aslan. “We made the most of the fact we were getting high quality female candidates put off going to the magic circle.”

Prejudice is no longer as explicit and firms encourage their lawyers to reach their full potential through putting support structures in place. “People are less accommodating of values that inhibit mobility and career progression,” says Hailes.

“There aren’t many large city firms with an Australian senior partner,” adds Nicky Paradise, Nabarro managing partner since 1999. “I had a baby while I was a managing partner. People go through different stages in their personal lives. We are conscious of that.”

These days management are better able to reflect these values because firms have more experience in doing so. In the late 1980s Geraldine Cotton was at Debenham & Co. The management there tried to accommodate the fact that she had young children.

“But they had no practice,” she recalls. “The senior partner would roll in at 6.20pm and say ‘can we discuss such and such a case’, and I had to get the 6.30 bus to go meet the nanny who was leaving at 7.”

The competitive nature of the UK legal market and the presence of US firms wielding their chequebooks has made retention a key issue for British law firms – helped by wider social and technological advancement. Nevertheless, a glance at current statistics indicates that there are still structural limitations to greater equality. Sixty-two per cent of trainees are women, but they make up only 18 per cent of partners. In the bar women make up only 10 per cent of QCs, despite representing 51.6 per cent of those called to the bar in 2006.

“It’s not easy being a woman at the bar,” says Aswini Weereratne, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers and mother of one. “I know from my discussions with other women that I’m not alone in that. It’s largely because women have become mothers and have to reach the pinnacles of their career. What happens to women? They don’t reach the top.”

The situation is similar among black and ethnic minority lawyers. There were 15.3 per cent black and minority ethnic (BME) pupils in 2006, but only 10 per cent of QCs are BME. “Law firms are seen as being meritocracies, but to shine you have to be on the biggest and best teams to be able to fast-track,” Webster argues.

There tends to be a domino effect in good practice. Initiatives such as the Stonewall Diversity Champions programme encourage firms to sign up to progressive policies, which their competitors may then seek to emulate. As a critical mass of good role models emerges at the top, talented individuals further down are more likely to stick around. Webster chooses a football analogy to illustrate the point: “If you go back to the 1980s or early 90s the legal profession was akin to the football league in the 1970s: there were only one or two black players.” It was their blackness that was used to differentiate them, rather than their football skills.

“It’s only when you get a lot of people coming through that you can start seeing past their colour and look at their abilities,” he adds. “We need to bring the legal profession up to the level of the Premiership.”


Letter to The Lawyer, 13 August 1987: Elizabeth Cruickshank is the editor of Link and the author of Women in the Law and Sisters in Law

Twenty years ago, I walked round St Paul’s Cathedral twice, early for my first day as an articled clerk. There were no female partners in the firm I was to join and very few in the City of London at all. I scraped my hair back, wore sensible shoes, a grey suit with a modest skirt and a white shirt, and was one of the 10 articled clerks who formed Stephenson Harwood’s class of 1987. In that year only 8,809 women solicitors held practising certificates.

Now, just 20 years later, female trainee solicitors would probably wear trousers (in the early 90s, I had been roundly ticked off by Personnel for doing so) and outnumber male trainees by 60 to 40. On qualification in 2009, they will swell the ranks of the 45,000 women solicitors presently holding practising certificates.

In 1987 my salary as an articled clerk was slightly less than it had been as a qualified teacher with 10 years’ experience. Articled clerks were still regarded as cheap enough to be sent round the City on ‘by hands’, which meant a collapsible umbrella, a handbag-sized A-to-Zand £10 for a taxi formed a useful survival kit. Before the widespread issue of desktop PCs to fee-earners, secretaries were more valuable. I soon learned in my first Property seat that typing for me was not a task that was within ‘my’ secretary’s remit, unless I first completed her most loathed task of colouring in lease plans.

But would my prospects now be any better than they were 20 years ago? My trainee’s salary in the City would most likely be in excess of the one that I had just left as a teacher, and on qualification in 2009 would probably be equivalent to that of the head teacher of a small school. Two women have served as Presidents of the Law Society and female managing and senior partners are not uncommon.

But although young women now start their careers on an equal footing and have the example of some exceptionally talented and charismatic women before them, there is still a well-documented pay gap between male and female solicitors, and only 18 per cent of female solicitors are partners as opposed to 40 per cent of male solicitors.

The next challenge is to make the law a more satisfying place of work for all solicitors, men and women alike, through implementation of parental rights legislation and flexible working policies.

Janet Gaymer, now Commissioner for Public Appointments, is the former senior partner of Simmons & Simmons and founder of the Employment Lawyers Association

My first memory of starting my legal career was receiving a letter from a well-known City law firm indicating that it would not be calling me to interview to become an articled clerk since it was prejudiced against female articled clerks due to some unfortunate experiences in the past. This was in 1969 and at the time I accepted it as part of life. I was more concerned about ensuring that I was going to be able to qualify as a solicitor.

My starting pay was £1,000 per annum in 1971. At this point I had not even begun to think about how I could combine legal practice with having a family. On arrival at Simmons & Simmons, I became quickly aware that I was only the second woman to have been recruited as an articled clerk, together with another female colleague. To some extent I was therefore a curiosity at the time. However, being a curiosity turned into an advantage when I decided to pursue employment law as my specialism. Clients would phone the switchboard of Simmons and ask for the “lady who does employment law”.

The actual experience of my 35-year career has been, overall, very satisfying. I have been kept constantly engaged, often felt extremely tired, but always intellectually engaged.

Laura Carstensen, former partner, Slaughter and May

Twenty years ago I had no children and was a newly-qualified assistant solicitor in the competition department of Slaughter and May. Ten years later I had five children under 10 and had been a partner in Slaughters for a couple of years. Tough? Brutal. Worth it?

Unquestionably, since it was the only way of getting where I wanted to be. When I joined there were no female partners but I arrived in the City with no concept of gender limitation. When Ruth Fox became the first female partner shortly afterwards I felt even more confident. To add interest I then had three children in less than three years, taking the minimal leave – about three weeks –which many then did to signal commitment. Regrets? Absolutely – but if I had done otherwise would I have made it? Not sure.

In 1993 I was pregnant with my fourth child and, having worked my butt off for the previous six years, due imminently to be considered for partnership when I
became a single parent. This could have been curtains. But the essential classiness of Slaughters and of my nanny (who stayed with me for 15 years) won through. They elected me a partner. So much for the ‘Slaughters man’ stereotype of the time. I hope my 10 years practice as a partner in the firm repaid that confidence.

I left in 2004 when my six children were aged between four and 16 to diversify, although as a Competition Commissioner(one of my hats) my links to my old field are strong. I married, had another two children and am as passionate as ever about equality and fairness in the workplace. It was a brutal meritocracy butvone of which I remain perversely fond.

Lesley MacDonagh, former managing partner, Lovells

When I started at Lovells 3O years ago, there were no female partners.

There were certain establishments in the City where women could not even approach the bar to be served a drink: they had to sit in a back room and wait for male colleagues to take pity on them and bring them an often much-needed
glass of wine.

Trouser suits were actually banned and it was in order to ask candidates at interview whether they intended to have a family and give up work.

I could not have predicted then that two decades later, my partners would re-elect me – a mother of three, pregnant with my fourth child – to managing partner’s role and that women wearing the trousers – literally and metaphorically –would become the norm.