Credit crunch, banking crises, financial meltdown… all of these phrases have become part of our everyday vocabulary. We have reviewed our financial models, our resource requirements and tightened our belts. We’ve cut back on training, marketing and expenses. Our sole aim for the past two years has been to survive the recession without too many casualties. But rather than just concentrating on the negatives, this is also a good opportunity to hone our strategic thinking.
Let’s not forget that out of adversity comes opportunity.
The legal world is on the cusp of great change and our staff play an important core role in managing that change. The opening up of the legal market, the advancement of technology and new entrants to our markets are some of the challenges faced. Service delivery and branding have become more important than ever. As Richard Susskind says in The End of Lawyers?: ‘The keys to the kingdom will pass from the traditional, analytical, logical mind to a more creative and imaginative cadre of lawyers.’
In essence, this is left-brain thinking versus right-brain thinking, and he says that it will more likely be right-brain thinkers, who are often female, who will be the winners in the new legal age.
If that is the case, why are we not preparing better for it? Why are the statistics showing that although more women are entering the profession (over 60%), more are leaving and fewer are becoming partners than men (21.8% compared to 49.9% of men)?
Of course, female lawyers are leaving the profession for a wide variety of reasons, but a major one is disillusionment. We need to work to improve the buy-in from these women, but for that to happen some fundamental changes need to take place.
We also need to look at our reward systems. On average, women are paid 7% less than men, and this gets worse the higher up the career ladder you go. Pay and promotion are often linked to competition, but women tend to work better in a more inclusive culture. They have other skills such as their ability to network and to leverage their contacts to their own and their firm’s advantage. Financial gain is important to them, but is not always the main motivation; instead, many prefer the challenge of working on a project that enhances knowledge and develops and advances leadership skills.
Providing career management is an important step in the right direction. To get the most from female employees, we must work with them to ensure that their aspirations match and can be supported by their firm’s strategy.
As part of many tenders, law firms are obliged to provide statistics that show diversity policies in action. Is this because our clients have an innate sense of fairness? Some would argue it is. Surely, we all recognise that to build a stronger team it takes different skill sets. If one type of team member or skill set is missing, then there is a weakness.
The greatest challenge we face is to ensure female lawyers are given the opportunity to use their commitment, unique skills and expertise to their firm’s benefit.
Many businesses, including law firms, function successfully without instigating such policies of inclusion. But I would argue that there is nothing so successful that cannot be made more successful or adapted better to our industry’s future needs.
Fiona Fitzgerald is a partner at Colemans-CTTS Solicitors and the outgoing chair of the Association of Women Solicitors
This article first appeared in Legal Strategy Review, Issue 3