Gender and Partnership

This article is aimed at female lawyers who would like to be partners.

Implications that women do not have the business development skills or staying power of their male colleagues, and that motherhood means that a woman gives up on partnership are rife. These slurs are splattered with alternative argument pertaining to a woman’s natural competitiveness, the sharpness of their elbows, and their perceived lack of contribution to the firm.

Perhaps most offensive of all is the assumption that it is the legal profession itself which is the main determining factor of the course of a female lawyer’s career. Conscious and unconscious bias and assumptions around child rearing are more powerful than the choices and objectives of the individual concerned. As with most generalities there is a germ of truth in each of these propositions, but surely not enough to account for the massive disparity between male and female partner numbers. Can the profession really be suppressing and dismissing 50% of its talent pool?

You do get to choose how your career progresses and where it ends up. Some choices are tougher than others and will impact on other aspects of your life.

Having a notional structure in mind about which to build and manage your career can be helpful at all levels of advancement. There is no one set of questions that fit everyone but in this context the big ones are:

  1. When do you want to retire?
  2. What sort of house do you want and where should it be?
  3. Do you want to get married? If so when?
  4. If you want children – when and how many?
  5. What do you need to earn at each stage of life?
  6. Do you want to be a Partner?

Making such plans early in one’s career may seem absurd – there are too many variables and life never works out as you think it will.  Nevertheless, having a plan containing clear strategies and objectives for your career that meet your personal and professional aims – as well as fitting in with the needs and expectations of the profession – is essential. Your perception of the profession may change at times and your goals may shift; but having a plan that you have devised will make you less susceptible to following or fitting in with your firm’s or the professions’ plans for you.

The Path

Three years of law degree, one year of LPC, and two years of training contract: that's six years of your life before you get to call yourself a solicitor. Thereafter things get tricky. As your career develops – so will your thoughts about the profession and your plans for the future.

First Steps: Assistant / Associate

As soon as you are entered on the roll you are expected to prove your worth. You will have billing targets set by your partners, who have in turn been given revenue targets by the management with specific profits in mind. You will be expected to get to grips with the harsh realities of private practice: make money, keep clients happy and don't get sued. Being technically capable and willing to work long hours is not always going to be enough to justify your existence. To keep your seat and to advance your career you need to be able to help your firm win client instructions. Business development requires networking, relationship building and brand promotion. These career demands for many are all consuming; you are still young and the other aspects of your life have to take a back seat. Remember that plan? It will allow you to come up for air. Look at where you are and measure whether you are still on track to meet the life goals that you have set for yourself.

By the time you are a 3 PQE associate you will typically be about 30 years old. For many people this is the point at which family, society and biology start to suggest that children will become part of the agenda. However, as your career progresses, the demands on your time also increase. How do you propose to manage your career during any period of parental leave? How will you cope with full-time work and children? Can you afford circa £35,000 per annum for a live in nanny? Then there will be nursery fees, and quite possibly school fees, and then just when you are least expecting it, university funds, etc.

As a senior associate you are working flat out for your clients and putting your free time at the disposal of institutional bodies, industry associations, business forums and other entities to drum up trade and raise your profile. Don’t forget you’ll be fighting to stay ahead of your billing target, too. Do this well, without complaint, and you will be seen as useful. Succeed in winning business for your partners and you will be an asset to your firm. Keep this up for a few years, train a few trainees and lead a few teams and you may just get made up.

At this point you are, to your surprise, in your mid-thirties; someone has mentioned the big 40 and been met with a scowl followed by incredulity that it is really not that far off. You are too old to keep renting – if you don’t buy now you will be paying a 25-year mortgage into your 60’s. You recognise that retirement at 50ish is not going to happen, that you have not actually saved that much and that the biggest expenses in life are still to come.  

Half-Way Point: Entering Partnership

To join the partnership your department head and managing partner want to see that you have demonstrated a sustained, substantial contribution to the firm's profitability. And that you will continue to do so. You realise that if you don't become a fixed share partner in the next two or three years, it's not going to happen. Balancing the innumerable calls on your time now is nearly impossible as is deciding whether to push for partnership before children or afterwards: both your plan and a frank discussion with your firm can assist.

Entering partnership even at salaried level is not the beginning of the end - just the end of the beginning. You will meet even higher billing requirements, days spent managing the expectations of junior associates, evenings spent catching up on billable work and nights spent entertaining potential clients. Life and family are tough to accommodate – many manage it with support and scrupulous time management. 

Nearly There: Joining the Equity

Entering equity is usually a harder step than becoming a salaried partner. While your years of dedicated service to the firm, industry profile and business development skills are all factors that will be taken into account, entry into the full equity of a firm is more often than not decided on the basis of whether it will be more expensive to lose you than to allow you a share of the profits. While the work levels do not drop it is to be hoped that increased remuneration and flexibility over your working patterns will mean that you are over the worst.


About the Author

Cogence Search is a leading London legal recruitment agency and lateral partner hire specialist.

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