The women in law debate

The challenge of you

Assembling a group of senior GCs and partners, The In-House Lawyer explores what it takes for women lawyers to reshape commercial law

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The women in law debate |

Building on sister publication Legal Business’ 2018 cover feature on the City’s star female deal counsel, The In-House Lawyer teamed up with Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer for a reception celebrating the strides made… and steps still to be taken. The 80 senior lawyers across in-house and private practice that gathered at The Ned in late November heard from a panel of general counsel and partners talking frankly about careers, life and changing aspirations.

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Natasha Good, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer: I was going to ask our panellists to start by telling us about the challenges they have faced on their career journeys.

Lucy Vernall, Funding Circle: Starting as a trainee in the early ‘90s, there were the obvious challenges. My intake was chosen on length of legs, told to wear short skirts for clients and not allowed to wear trousers. Coming through, then going to a smaller law firm, building up a corporate team, myself with a strong woman by my side, we were the sort of underdogs. But I was trying to think of some horror stories I suffered but I have not. I grew up surrounded by boys and worked surrounded by boys, so it has not challenged me personally.

Lucie Cawood, Travers Smith: My biggest challenge has been myself. It sounds incredibly trite, but if you cannot see it, you cannot be it. For the vast majority of my time as a junior lawyer I had limited examples of senior women in my practice area [private equity]. I had to understand I could do my job my own way and bring my style, and that was as valid as the ways of approaching the job perceived to be traditional. It has taken me a long time to accept that. I’ve been a partner for six years, and I am still on the curve, but it’s getting better.

Lauren Livingston, CVC: I went to an all-girls school. It was just, ‘Get as far as you can as quick as you can. Hustle to the top’, and that’s what I did. Eventually, I could not continue to live that way and started to think, ‘Who am I and what do I want to do?’ Being women, we come with different perspectives. Perhaps our perspective and empathy are also skills. If we start to value them, we can help business start to value them.

The challenge is women recognising what is within them that they need to grow but also what is valuable about them and what value I bring as a leader within my business. When I started in private equity there were probably ten women who were non-PAs. We continue to face that challenge, but it is about going inwards and becoming who you might be. That is the thing to grow into.

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I had limited examples of senior women. I had to understand I could do my job my own way.
Lucie Cawood, Travers Smith

Sabine Chalmers, BT: My career challenges were twofold. The first was a result of my background. I am half German, half Indian and grew up in the Philippines. The first time I travelled abroad was when I came to England to study and then work. Early in my career, because so much was far from home and trying to fit in, I had a problem wanting to be liked rather than focusing on being respected. Bizarrely, at the time, when I received criticism my reaction would be, ‘I am only getting that because I am a woman’, whereas there were a lot of great male mentors giving me the right advice, I just didn’t want to hear it.

The other big challenge was when I had my daughter. I was 35 and in-house, but it was that sort of stretch where you needed to put the work in if you wanted to be a general counsel and, yes, I put the work in. My husband became a stay-at-home dad and took the main responsibilities for raising our daughter. The guilt, feeling I was doing nothing right – not the job, not being a mother, not a good wife – for one or two years was a big challenge. Had I not had such an understanding husband who made me feel good about being myself, it would have been a lot more difficult to cope.

Georgina Stanley, The Legal 500: Are there still things in the environment holding back women from progressing their careers?

Sabine Chalmers: I joined BT eight months ago, but prior to that I was in beer [as GC of AB InBev]. You cannot get more male than that. Of the 22-member executive team, I was the only woman. The female representation in senior ranks was about 10-15% and we were pretty good compared to many beer companies. I have noticed this at BT, where I am part of an executive team where we have that critical mass of three they talk about. But back then, at times it was very lonely. I found if I became passionate about a perspective, the response would be: ‘You’re just getting emotional.’

Lauren Livingston: I recently wrote what I called my career suicide paper, which was designed to support my business to look at the working environment for everyone. My view was there was no point hiring a tonne of brilliant women if they would not want to grow in the business.

There are pillars to growth. The internal piece we have all spoken about and recognising what is holding you back within yourself, and what help you need. There is peer-to-peer support. The HR is a lady at CVC. I often go into her room and go: ‘Argh, I have just been called fucking emotional again!’ There is seeking that support, or asking: ‘How would you approach it?’

When asked, “How would you feel if an associate left early on a Thursday?” the female client said: “On no account let me know!”  Natasha Good, Freshfields  Bruckhaus Deringer
When asked, “How would you feel if an associate left early on a Thursday?” the female client said: “On no account let me know!”
Natasha Good, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer

Natasha Good: Lucy, I am interested in the tech scenario you sit in and whether there is any commentary you can make from a people point of view.

Lucy Vernall: On the executive group we have a number of strong women, and that is exciting. At the lower levels, while all of us on the leadership team want to push, it does not happen.

We are working hard at it, but we do sometimes come to that ‘This just is not happening. What are we going to do?’ moment. We do not want to go too far in positive discrimination, but we are looking at the whole recruitment process to make sure unconscious bias is not coming into that.

Georgina Stanley: How much of the problem do you think is the lack of real impetus to create that change?

Lucie Cawood: Certainly in our business the impetus is there. We
are trying to make some clear choices as to how to change things, but it is not easy.

Lauren Livingston: A lot of us wait for the perfect time: ‘I am going to wait until I am ten years’ qualified and had two children and I am married’, whatever your thing is in your head. I became general counsel. I then got pregnant and then you go through maternity leave, and I did not want a locum, and then I had some people trying to take my position. I just do not think there is ever a perfect time. It is about everyone trying to support each other through times and recognising that any time can be made the right time.

It’s the systems you create, so looking at your PA, your colleagues’ PAs. I speak to all of them about what time I have to leave. I do not have a partner at home so there is my neighbourhood environment, the school my son goes to, everything that helps you do your job. I look at it like a system so I can flow within it.

Georgina Stanley: When you are putting together diverse teams can you say to clients: ‘I am putting forward this team. It is X% women and three of them are going to be working from home on this day, and one of them stops at 4pm on Friday?’

You need support in your outside life. Do not think you can do everything because you can’t! Lucy Vernall, Funding Circle
You need support in your outside life. Do not think you can do everything because you can’t!
Lucy Vernall, Funding Circle

Natasha Good: I was talking to a female client in Europe and she was explaining that she had achieved certain flexibility and could pick up her kids from school twice a week. She was open in saying she managed that because she had achieved a senior position.

When I said, ‘How would you feel if we told you an associate was trying to leave earlier in the afternoon on a Thursday?’ she had this rather violent reaction. She said: ‘On no account let me know. Do it, but do not tell me…’ It has made me slightly nervous of it, but it is very hard if it all had to be managed on the law firm’s side.

Sabine Chalmers: If I look back at AB InBev, the growing categories for a lot of products were either the female consumer, the Hispanic consumer or the African-American consumer. It was like: ‘Go figure! We do not have marketing people that are women or from these groups. No wonder we are losing out to other companies that have a different agenda.’

But the reality remains that, particularly when it comes to law firms, most clients think they are being absolutely ripped off by the fees. If you are going to come and say, ‘So-and-so is not going to be available because we need to run flexi-time’, the clients are going to say no. Even I would say no in those circumstances.

I am going to make a very provocative statement: think about what’s happening with competition in Asia or AI, a machine is never going to say: ‘I need some flexi-time to look after my kids.’ We need to take that into account in this debate, unfortunately.

Very often people say to me: ‘When will women break through the glass ceiling?’ It is going to be when it is just as acceptable for the man to stay at home and look after the kids so the woman can be there providing what the business needs. It is a massive dilemma for law firms, because clients are not necessarily going to be as flexible.

Georgina Stanley: Has anyone got any practical examples of building in flexibility for either gender? Is it a generational issue?

Lucy Vernall: The younger generation have different expectations. Working in a much younger fintech company, it is not a gender issue. Males and females expect to work in a very different way. They expect flexibility. Certainly when there are families the men and the women want the same flexibility. If you want to keep those good people, you need to find a way to work with that, but it would not work with transactional lawyers.

Lucie Cawood: You have to get creative as well though. I do not want to be in a position to say: ‘In the transactional world, people cannot do anything other than work full time.’ That is not the case, but we have to get creative about how we do it.

Lauren Livingston: You need to look for people with open eyes and open ears. Female or male, they are the people one should gravitate towards. My boss is a man and he is a wonderful support. The head of investor relations, a guy, was a massive mentor of mine. He used to say things like: ‘Do not ask for permission. Ask for forgiveness.’ He would say: ‘Just turn up at the meeting. Don’t wait to be invited.’ I have had some great male mentors. Not all women are supportive. Not all men are. They are just humans. Look for the good.

I have had some great male mentors. Not all women are supportive. They  are just humans. Look for the good. Lauren Livingston, CVC Capital Partners
I have had some great male mentors. Not all women are supportive. They are just humans. Look for the good.
Lauren Livingston, CVC Capital Partners

Sabine Chalmers: I have seen women give up or fail in the workplace. It has not been because of the workplace, but because they felt they were failing at home at being a good wife, a good mother, a good girlfriend. For my career, were it not for the fact I always felt supported, I would not be where I am today.

The other thing about male role models or mentors is there is an interesting trend I have seen: some of the best mentors are men with successful daughters, wives or partners. They bring a different understanding to the possibilities women have or should have in life.

Lauren Livingston: I am very lucky to have been senior when I had my child. Also, from a financial perspective, my childcare is the equivalent cost to my business as their PA. It is a huge budgetary hit for me, but I view it as the cost of keeping my job.

Sabine Chalmers: I have one story, which was one of the more bizarre incidents I faced. I was speaking on a panel, doing the keynote speech. It was the first thing and the following panel was there as well – all men.

We trot up and are sitting there and this very eminent GC turned to me and said: ‘Would you order a taxi for me while I am [speaking]?’ I thought: ‘Seriously?!’ I said, ‘I will give you the number of a great cab company as soon as I finish the keynote speech’, at which point he went white and I went up. He rushed up to me afterwards and he said, ‘Oh my God! I am so sorry. Where are you staying?’ He sent me flowers.

I called him and said: ‘You are making this worse now.’ To his credit, he said: ‘What can I do to make it up?’ I said: ‘What shocked me is your company bangs on endlessly about diversity. So have you got a women’s group or something like that?’ He said: ‘Yes.’ I said: ‘Let me come in and work with you to run some kind of proper workshop with them.’ To his credit, he said yes and when he retired a few years later was succeeded by a female general counsel, but it was one of those moments where you think you are in a parallel universe.

The GC asked if I’d book a taxi while he spoke. I said: “I will give you a cab number after my keynote speech.” He went white. Sabine Chalmers, BT
The GC asked if I’d book a taxi while he spoke. I said: “I will give you a cab number after my keynote speech.” He went white.
Sabine Chalmers, BT

Lauren Livingston: I believe in picking up these minor incidents because it’s like the broken glass policy, but it is working out the best way. I do not believe in undermining people in meetings. It’s not going to influence anyone but sometimes that is appropriate. If someone’s being bullied or harassed, I am going to step in.

The other day I got laughed at in a meeting, and I did not know why, because I knew I was supported by some male colleagues. I thought: ‘Why are you laughing at me?’ I decided after the meeting to speak to [a male colleague] and say: ‘What happened? Why did you back down?’ It is those little openings where you can go: ‘Help me understand why that went down that way?’

Natasha Good: I would love to ask our panellists if there is a tip that you have for those starting out.

Lucy Vernall: Whether you have a family or not, make sure you have support in your outside life. I have been in the lucky position of having a husband who has been supportive, but it does not matter whether it is a husband, the right childcare, family, a mentor – you need support! Do not think you can do everything because you can’t! The other things are to believe in yourself, speak up and make sure you ask for help in the workplace.

Lucie Cawood: Mine is nebulous. I have had conversations with junior lawyers at Travers who are sitting in a vacuum thinking: ‘I am 26, I am mapping out my life.’ They are doing the maths: ‘Maybe I have a boyfriend, girlfriend, partner. Then I want to have a couple of kids.’ They suddenly think ahead: ‘I am 42 and cannot possibly do this!’ At the age of 25 or 26 there is a decision that, for some people, is off-siding themselves before they have a decision to make. My tip would be: try not to do that. Talk to people. Talk about the different possibilities open to you.

Practical tips are that it is absolutely fine to walk into a meeting and sit at the head of the table. Also, breakfasts are fantastic for business development. You do not have to go for a beer after work.

Sabine Chalmers: The only thing I would add: if you do not ask you do not get. Sometimes we think that if we work really hard we will get noticed and good things happen. The world does not happen that way. Often in my career promotions were for things that folks in charge never thought I would want. When I rocked up and said, ‘I may not even be the best candidate but I am prepared to do this because I think that is the right thing to do’, they were like: ‘Bloody hell, we never realised you would want to move countries!’ The worst thing that can happen is they will say no, and then you try something else.

Natasha Good: Thank you all for coming.

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