Women on top

Several years ago everyone was hailing a new generation of female law firm leaders. A whole host of smaller to midsize firms were electing women to management: Penny Francis at Lawrence Graham, Diana Parker at Withers, Nicky Paradise at Nabarros, Sally Field at Bristows, Samantha Phillips at Harbottle & Lewis, plus, of course, Joy Kingsley at Pannones.

Women in the larger City practices, though, weren’t anywhere near as well represented. Only three firms in the top 20 had female leaders: Virginia Glastonbury at Denton Wilde Sapte, Lesley MacDonagh at Lovells and Janet Gaymer at Simmons & Simmons. So it’s a dismal state of affairs that Janet Gaymer is now the only one left of the trio. In the space of just a few months, Glastonbury and MacDonagh have made shock decisions to bow out of management. In both cases, they had simply had enough of the politics. (Not that either woman would ever admit that, mind; Glastonbury and MacDonagh both remain hugely loyal to their firms.)

You won’t find anyone in Lovells with a word to say against MacDonagh. It’s notable that of the major City firms to have expanded into Europe, Lovells has not only managed to build profitability, but also avoid much of the politics that have afflicted so many of its peers. With the surprise election of John Young as senior partner, whom MacDonagh did not endorse, her exit was inevitable. The result is the most prolonged bout of politicking the firm has seen for years.

Glastonbury, meanwhile, seems to have become a scapegoat for Dentons’ woes. It seems disgraceful that partners’ ire over lack of communication from management should be directed solely at her. Ditching Asia was managed relatively smoothly considering other firms’ experiences, for example. It didn’t help that the TMT team resigned en masse, but what really did for her was a partner memo in which her management style was savaged.

But as chief executive, Glastonbury was not supposed to be responsible for the vision thing. Nor, crucially, was she supposed to be responsible for internal or external communication. Her job was implementation of a strategy. The touchy-feely stuff was supposed to have been handled by James Dallas, who appears so far to have escaped any criticism.

Compared with their male counterparts in management, MacDonagh and Glastonbury had considerably more clarity of vision. But really, someone ought to come out and say what so many people are actually thinking: it’s the wrong people resigning.