As in many other disciplines, employment law assistants are divided quite evenly along gender lines, but the sector has more than its fair share of female partners – probably more than any other part of the law. Indeed, the heads of four top London practices are women.
Some women lawyers admit that their prominence comes partly from the old view that employment is a “soft” discipline, where interpersonal skills (where women are deemed better performers than their male colleagues), rather than legal skills are the main drivers. Some have gone so far as to align employment law with counselling or psychology, which are undoubtedly important in the armoury of a good employment lawyer.
The queen of employment law is the charming and effective Janet Gaymer, head of Simmons & Simmons' employment law practice, which was the first to be set up in the City in 1972. Described by clients as “out of the top drawer”, Gaymer is one of the founders of the powerful Employment Lawyers Association (ELA) and is its life vice-president. Gaymer has a fantastic profile, not least because of her extensive business development activities, which have led some clients to lament the fact that they cannot always get hold of her when they would like.
Another ELA star is Elaine Aarons, the feisty head of Eversheds' London practice. Aarons is a powerful advocate for the all-round service provided by the national firm, and is a good example of how flexible working practices – she works four days a week – do not preclude an individual from attaining market-leading status.
Jane Mann of Fox Williams completes the trinity of the City's most powerful female employment lawyers. Complimented by clients not least for her dry wit and slightly distant approach, the co-founder of ELA heads the team at the niche City practice and is, in common with Gaymer and Aarons, a regular speaker and author.
Lower in profile, but nonetheless a powerful figure in the ranks of female employment lawyers, is Christine O'Brien, head of the employment department at Baker & McKenzie. O'Brien was in the shadow of her “guru” predecessor Fraser Younson until he left to head the practice at McDermott Will & Emery, but is among the highest-rated lawyers.
Baker & McKenzie has a number of excellent female partners, including Sarah Gregory, Shona Newmark and Ellen Temperton.
Others worth singling out in the London market are Caroline Carter of Ashurst Morris Crisp, Kate Brearley of Stephenson Harwood, Geraldine Elliott of Reynolds Porter Chamberlain, Naomi Feinstein and Elizabeth Slattery of Lovells, Georgina Keane, who has moved from Richards Butler to Lawrence Graham, Karen Seward, who has moved from Pinsent Curtis to Allen & Overy, Helga Breen of Eversheds, Valmai Adams of Nabarro Nathanson, Nicola Kerr of SJ Berwin, Julia Palca of Olswang and Elizabeth Potter of Farrer & Co, an impressive lawyer on collective disputes in particular.
One of the most heavily-partnered practices in the City, Denton Wilde Sapte also benefits from the presence of a number of highly-rated individuals, including Corinne Aldridge, Stephanie Dale and Pauline McArdle.
Denton Wilde is also home to a female employment lawyer more famous than any other, at least to a wider public, Denise Kingsmill, now a consultant, but one of the most high-profile employment lawyers around. Kingsmill was variously a partner at DJ Freeman, Clyde & Co and Denton Hall before becoming deputy head of the Competition Commission (with the odd TV appearance) and recently made a fair attempt at becoming head of the OFT.
Outside London, men tend to dominate at partner level, although there are a few women who stand out, including Sue Ashtiany at Morgan Cole, Christine Bradley at Pannone & Partners, Nicola Brown at Mills & Reeve, Sue Nickson, Catherine Prest and Veronica Dean of Hammond Suddards Edge, Susan Mallalieu and Sarah Woffendon of Shoosmiths, Audrey Williams of Eversheds, Janice Barber of Hempsons, Helen Boddy of Shadbolt & Co, Alison Charnock of Gordons Cranswick and Judith Watson of Cobbetts. In Scotland, Eilidh Cameron of Dundas & Wilson and Shona Simon of niche practice Mackay Simon stand out.
Aside from the partners, there are a number of lawyers shaping up to inherit the mantle of leading female assistants, who may not be familiar to readers, but are rated highly by clients. Ruth Harvey of Hammond Suddards Edge in particular is highly-rated, while Baker & McKenzie's Kirsten Barker and Clare Ranson come up well. DLA's Sandra Wallace and Helen Cookson provide an interesting counterpoint to the male-dominated partner ranks at the national firm, while Julie Quinn at Allen & Overy, Victoria Lewis at Simmons & Simmons and Patricia Obina and Judith Harris of Denton Wilde Sapte keep the City flag flying. Eversheds can count Sarah Bunker, Naeema Choudhury, Kathy Halliday, Ann-Marie Thompson and Audrey Elliott as rising stars in its huge national practice.