In 1919 Parliament passed the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which permitted women to enter the professions and to serve on juries. In 1957, almost 40 years later the Law Society recorded that 356 women now held practising certificates; by contrast this qualification was held by 18, 244 men. Over the last decade the total number of women holding practising certificates has nearly doubled and now women account for 45.8% of solicitors holding practising certificates.
Massive progress has been made and it is now easier than ever for women to enter and progress in the legal professions. However, a glance at the proportion of women made up to partner in the major legal firms does not reflect this. Certainly not 45.8% of them are women. The general proportion is much nearer to 20% and in some City firms it is much less.
If you are a woman how can you maximise your chances of getting a training contract and then making progress through the ranks?
Like it or not, women are seen as being meticulous in their attention to detail, conscientious in their attitude to work and caring towards others.
Play to your strengths
Attend to the details in your CV and application letter. Make sure that they demonstrate your precision and excellent presentation skills. Make sure there are no sloppy spelling and grammatical errors – prove to your prospective employers that any advice that you give to clients will be not only be well thought out and accurate but also legible and easy to understand.
Demonstrate your conscientiousness by thoroughly researching the firm you are applying to and tailoring your application to the firm’s requirements. Don’t say that you are interested in Media Law if the firm does not offer that but specialises in Human Rights work and equally don’t trumpet your concerns for the downtrodden if you are applying to a major corporate firm – they may applaud your humanity, but give the contract to someone else. Remember that law firms are businesses and need to make a profit in their chosen areas of legal expertise.
Research the demographics of the firm you are applying to. Looking at the “Our People” lists on a firm’s web-site can give you some idea of the number of women lawyers in the firm and their relative seniority. If there are only 5 women in a firm with 50 lawyers ask yourself why this might be. The reason might not be institutional gender discrimination, it may be that 7 female lawyers are on generous maternity leave, but be alert.
There really is no substitute for pre-application research.
Showing your caring side
To some extent this is simply another name for social skills, the ability to make other people feel comfortable and important. In a firm with a strong private client bias you will be dealing with the problems of individuals rather than of large companies and the ability to analyse technical material, to apply it to practical situations and then to explain the results to individuals with precision and patience in language they understand is highly valued.
Practise this skill on your family and non-legal friends. Explain to them what the process of buying a house entails or what is involved in making a Will. How quickly can you make them understand the different implications of holding property as Tenants in Common or Joint Tenants? Could you find out what someone’s real concern is in making a Will, whether it is to save tax or to ensure that all the people they care for are properly provided for on death?
But don’t overlook that fact that even large companies are not walking Articles of Association. They are represented by individuals and the ability to show genuine but not intrusive interest in the concerns of even very senior executives can sometimes lead to their asking for you by name the next time they require legal advice. You don’t need to play rugby or football to note that the Chairman of X plc is a fanatical Arsenal fan or to ask the Finance Director of Y Ltd about his recent visit to New Zealand to watch the Rugby World Cup. Admiring a senior female executive’s Christian Louboutins (the ones with the red soles) or Armani suit is acceptable, but don’t be sycophantic. If you get that one wrong, just make sure that you get it wrong on the side of luxury – mistaking M&S for Christian Dior suggests that the female executive concerned is naturally elegant, but making the error the other way round….
Dressing the part for interview
There’s no need to pretend that you are a man in the way that you dress. However fetching you might look in a dark trouser suit, white shirt and stripey blue tie, it merely suggests that you are trying too hard. But you should not look as though you are heading off for a good night’s clubbing either.
The impression that you want to give is of someone who pays attention to detail and cares just enough about how she dresses. You should be neat, in a suit with trousers or a not too short skirt, your top should not be low-cut or transparent and you should not wear flashy or noisy jewellery. You should give the impression that it would be easy for you to turn up for work every morning looking neat, clean and ready to be wheeled out to clients at a moment’s notice. Looking “sexy” will impress for all the wrong reasons, can provoke hostility in some senior female interviewers and inappropriate thoughts in the minds of male ones. Don’t distract your interviewers from the task in hand, which is to assess your suitability for their firm – and with luck to give you the job.
One of the boys
Getting ahead in the Law, or even getting that all important training contract does not require that you become “one of the lads” matching them pint for pint at after work drinks. If you learn to nurse your drink you will not only end up hangover free the next morning and be able to avoid difficult situations with your fellow trainees or more senior lawyers, but by being alert you will probably acquire all sorts of interesting information. Don’t put yourself in situations where you can be construed as inviting sexual harassment.
Elizabeth Cruickshank and Professor Penny Cooper of The City Law School are the authors of ‘All you need to know about being a Trainee Solicitor’ (Longtail, 2008) and together with Boma Ozobia of “The Survival Manual for New Wigs” (Odade 2010).