This morning, an article in ‘The Brief’ newsletter from The Times caught my attention. Apparently, as many as 60 per cent of female lawyers believe their career has been hindered by a gender bias.
While some male lawyers have expressed support for the idea of gender quotas at law firms and the judiciary, women in the legal profession remained adamantly against it, according to the report.
Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption is apparently not convinced that discrimination is an issue in the profession. Last year, he spoke to the Evening Standard about the issue and said that the lack of women in high positions was because they often do not want the lifestyle required for such positions.
So what do I think?
I run arguably the biggest family law firm in the country. Around 70 per cent of the solicitors at the firm are women. With so many working at my firm, there are often pregnancies and maternity leave requests, and while some may see this as a challenge, I have always seen it as an opportunity.
Maternity gives me the opportunity to hire new people and expand the firm. Those who take the time off can come back at the end of their leave and re-establish themselves with clients and those hired to fill in will often stay with us. Everyone has the opportunity to carve their own niche. If the new mothers choose not to return, then more new faces can be brought in.
Discrimination does exist but it is possible for law firms to do their part. Every woman has the right to maternity leave without having to worry about what it will mean for their career prospects. As an employer it is a challenge but one that can be overcome and actually be a benefit to the firm and legal profession.
“Sixty per cent of women blame gender bias for hampering their careers” is the provocative headline that thunders from The Brief today, which is part of The Times of London.
It got me thinking. It is quite an interesting subject because yesterday I actually mentioned Lord Sumption who is Supreme Court Judge and said that he is a big personality in the law. The link between the two is that he spoke to the Evening Standard in September 2015 and he was looking at the lack of women judges in high positions in the legal profession. From 2004, when Lady Hale was appointed to the Supreme Court, of the 13 judges that were appointed thereafter, they were all male. He said that actually the lack of women was because they couldn’t stand the lifestyle, it was very hard work and he thought they just couldn’t and wouldn’t put up with it. He was strongly against a quota of women to add diversity to the judicial profession.
The survey today suggests that a significant minority of lawyers would approve of a quota of women to the higher echelons of the legal profession; both the bar and solicitors professions. Women themselves, women lawyers didn’t want it.
So, what are my thoughts?
Well, I head arguable the largest family law firm in the country and 70 per cent of the lawyers in my firm are women. So I think I have got something to say about it. First of all, from a personal point of view, have I ever come across discrimination? Not that I am aware of but I do not think that it would have stopped me anyway. Secondly, in terms of who we take on, does it matter if it is a man or a woman? That is where, as an employer, I think that things do crop up that make you wonder. For example, most of the women in my firm have got families, or are pregnant, or are off on maternity leave. I can guarantee that at least three or four solicitors in the firm will phone me up every year and say “Marilyn, I have got some news for you…”.
It is how you treat that. It is whether you treat it as a challenge or as a hindrance that I think marks out the firm. What I have discovered is when somebody goes off on maternity, the best thing you can do is hire new people in. Hire them, not because they are a certain sex and they are unlikely to get pregnant but hire them because they are good. They will carve out a niche for themselves and when the solicitor who is on maternity comes back, she too, because she is good, she will rebuild her own caseload as well.
That is actually one of the secrets of the success of Stowe Family Law. Instead of taking on the point about gender discrimination and so on and so forth, we have taken on maternity and we have dealt with it and think that we have dealt with it in the correct way. People want to have families, people are entitled to have families and they are entitled to have time off. Fine. We have to think about clients, we have to think about the growth of the firm and we have taken maternity as a very real challenge. We have replaced people and we have grown. So that is my view.
I think discrimination does exist. I think that women are regarded as bringing baggage with them but my own experience suggests quite the opposite is the truth.