In 2017, the SRA reported that women make up 48% of the lawyers in law firms throughout the UK. However, when looking at more senior positions, this percentage lowers to 33%. Despite an increase on previous years, the industry still has some work to do.
Carolyn Beal, Partner and Practice Manager, discusses her career working in a male dominated industry, how she rose through the ranks of the firm and what the future holds for women in law.
What made you decide to pursue a career in law?
A suggestion was made to me whilst I was still at school that I should look into law as a career because I preferred subjects that involved writing, reasoning and problem solving. I did not really know what was involved in a legal career at all, but I got in touch with the Law Society to ask for information. The wide variety of subject areas really appealed to me, as well as the different types of working environments that are available. I got the impression that no two days or clients are ever the same, which proved to be right.
What area of law were you drawn to?
Once I started my law degree I was definitely drawn to the more practical elements of the job. I liked the idea of being involved with clients and working with them to find a practical solution for them. The areas of law which naturally seemed to fit into this were Family, Litigation and Wills and Probate.
How did your career begin?
I completed my law degree at Newcastle University. I was lucky enough to build in a gap year following completion of my degree so I worked in a bank for a while, before travelling. When I returned I continued with my training and completed the LPC at The College of Law in York.
I was offered the role of trainee solicitor by Swinburne Maddison and I have stayed with the firm ever since. My role changed from fee-earning Solicitor to Practice Manager in 2008 and then I became a Partner in 2014.
During your career have you experienced any set backs due to being female?
My degree course was a fairly even split between male and female undergraduates, which was echoed in the makeup of the graduates on my LPC. I took for granted that the split would continue through the rest of my career. I think it was only once I started work that I realised things were quite different in practice in the more senior roles.
I felt the need to prove myself, particularly with older male clients. It was not uncommon for them to assume that because I was younger and female that I would not put up the same fight for their interests or I would be ‘softer’. There was sometimes an assumption that I would be intimidated by older male solicitors representing their opponents. The best way of dealing with that was to work hard for all my clients and prove to them that it made no difference how old I was or whether I was male or female.
What does being partner and practice manager entail?
Anything and everything involved in running a commercial law firm, apart from providing the actual legal advice! One of the things I love about the role is the variety, so in any one day I could be dealing with personnel, finance, training and development, business planning and IT. The role of Practice Manager, when combined with being a Partner, means I am able to be heavily involved in strategic planning as well as practical day to day implementation of those plans. It is hugely rewarding to see something progress from the gem of an idea to a solution that is actually in place and working well for staff.
Over the last twelve months I have been responsible for implementation of a staff benefits scheme, refurbishment of the entire office, implementation of GDPR and implementation of a voice recognition dictation system. Those are just a few of the individual projects I have dealt with aside from all of the other regulatory and practical requirements of running a full service law firm with more than 50 employees.
Swinburne Maddison is a female dominated law firm. What does that mean to you?
I am proud to say I work with some extremely talented colleagues, 74% of which are women, across a variety of business functions. Our firm is built on the ethos that we recruit and nurture the best talent the North East has to offer, whether that is male or female. We make business decisions based on a number of factors including allowing our staff to develop their careers whilst maintaining the best possible work/life balance. This is not something that is common to every law firm and I believe this is why we have a very low turnover rate of colleagues.
In 2018 we recruited nine colleagues, of which eight were female appointments. This is not because we actively recruit women; they were genuinely the best candidate at interview. As more and more women come through the education and training stage of becoming a lawyer, there is a much larger pool of female candidates. I really do believe that the work/life balance that we are offering at our firm is one of the reasons we attract so many applications from women. This has to be a huge positive factor for the development of the profession. It is immensely short sighted to view less favourably 50% of the work force when appointing people for senior roles for the reason that there may be a few years across a person’s entire working life where they may be perceived to be less “available” than their male counterparts.
Our firm has a total of nine partners, three of which are female. I believe the industry is improving, whereby more females are securing these senior positions, and I would like to think Swinburne Maddison is contributing to this.
One thing I am really pleased about has been the willingness of many firms to put in place flexible working or working from home with the IT function to support that. Like many women with children, it would have been incredibly difficult for me to meet the requirements of the job whilst being tied to very limited hours in the office. It is now the case that lawyers (for whatever reason) have the ability to balance time in the office with time working away from the office because of the ease with which the work can continue seamlessly no matter where you are working. I believe that as more and more people work flexibly, far fewer questions will be raised about the ability of someone to meet their client’s needs or expectations even when they are not in the office.
When we are considering succession, we view the contribution of an individual to the firm as a whole rather than to a number of hours somebody is physically present in the office. I believe this approach is key in allowing senior positions to be filled by the best possible candidate, whether male or female.
How has working in the legal services field changed over the last 10 years?
One of the biggest factors that has changed is the ability to work more flexibly and the recognition by clients and business contacts across the board that they are still served well by people who take advantage of flexible working opportunities. There has been a growing number of female undergraduates at law degree stage, to the extent that more than 50% of recent law graduates are female. I also believe that over the past ten years law firms have changed their approach dramatically to adopt methods of working that keep clients and staff happy. All of these are hugely positive changes to a profession which is often seen as being an “old boys network” and only suitable for a narrow sector of school leavers.
The Law Society and organisations that work with younger people are doing a great job in promoting the profession as suitable for people no matter what their background or gender. I think this is something that has slowly changed across the board, although there is still a long way to go.
When I speak with my goddaughter who is currently considering different careers there is no question in her mind of avoiding certain careers because of her gender. That was certainly not the case when I was at school, and I think it speaks for itself about how much attitudes have started to change.
What advice would you give to young females about to embark on their legal careers?
Be prepared to work hard and allow your work and commitment to your firm and your clients speak for itself. Do not be put off by stereotypes of the profession, because it is definitely changing. Enjoy the exciting, diverse and rewarding career that the law can provide!