Inspiring female lawyers tell us their biggest lessons learnt, how to climb the ladder & what International Women’s Day means to them

IWD - Stewarts Law

In this piece, WeAreTheCity talks to four female lawyers from UK law firm, Stewarts, about their biggest lessons learnt, their advice to women trying to climb the ladder in the corporate world and what International Women’s Day means to them.

Lucy WardLucy Ward (Partner, Commercial and Securities Litigation)

Lucy is a commercial disputes expert specialising in banking and financial services litigation and fraud. She has particular expertise advising institutional investors in complex securities litigation and high value disputes. Lucy is ranked in the Legal 500 as a ‘Next Generation Partner’. She was the lead partner in one of The Lawyer’s top 20 cases for 2020 and described as a “heavy hitter” 

What are your biggest lessons learnt from being a female lawyer?

Achieving success requires a careful balance between self-promotion (don’t be walked over) and humility (don’t walk over others). With hard work and courage you can achieve whatever you want to achieve. Don’t be held back for fear of the fact that working in the legal sector is a traditionally male dominated working environment. It’s changing.

Any challenges you have faced?

Unconscious bias is rife everywhere and can result in behaviours that are unfair to women, especially in the workplace. I’ve noticed this with language – for example, a ‘confident’ or ‘ambitious’ man could be described as a ‘bossy’ or ‘headstrong’ woman. Being mindful of language use is essential to enabling people to feel comfortable around others.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to consider how we can promote a gender-equal workplace where difference is valued and celebrated. It’s important to recognise that diversity in the workplace gives businesses a competitive advantage in bringing greater creativity of thought, and differences in ways of approach and thinking, to help solve problems.

Why is this year’s ‘embrace equity’ theme important?

It’s important to recognise that inclusion is all about recognising and accepting people’s diverse backgrounds. One way to embrace this in the workplace is through mentorship, which can help to provide context to your career journey, open up learning channels between mentor and mentee, and provide a path to upskilling and transfer of knowledge. Crucially though, a mentor programme can help to break down potential barriers and open up conversations.

Any tips for how to climb the ladder as a woman in the corporate world?

Good relationships are critical – no one wants to work with people they can’t get along with.

Look to your role models. There will be women all around you who show that it is possible to excel professionally without sacrificing everything else in your life.

Elaina BailesElaina Bailes (Partner, Commercial Litigation)

Elaina is an experienced commercial litigator who has acted on a number of high-profile and ground-breaking cases in the High Court and in leading offshore jurisdictions, including Cayman and BVI.

What are your biggest lessons learnt from being a female lawyer?

Women still face more judgement on their careers than men – I often get asked if I work full time or if I miss my children when travelling for work in a way my male peers do not. I’ve learnt to deal with this by being unapologetic about my choices and showing that being a working mum makes me more ambitious professionally, wanting to be a role model to my kids.

Any opportunities/challenges you have faced?

I was lucky enough to grow up with brilliant female role models in my working mum and grandmothers, and a school which championed female excellence, so before I started work it never occurred to me that being a woman would affect my career. So as a junior lawyer, I was surprised not to see many female role models in the profession and a high attrition rate of women after children. Thankfully, things have moved on since then and my generation has had the benefit of organisations recognising and addressing this problem.

There are still challenges – I am often still the only woman in the room (or on Zoom) which makes getting your voice heard more intimidating. It requires extra resilience to deal with unconscious bias in daily interactions, and call it out in an appropriate way.

Despite many more families now being dual income, we are still a very long way from equity in attitudes to parental leave, aligning childcare with corporate hours and encouraging both men and women to work flexibly to meet childcare needs. Until it is routine that men take extended periods of parental leave without any impact on their careers, we cannot say that motherhood will not impact women’s career progression.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

It’s a chance to reflect on the achievements of women and the rich history of feminism.  I enjoy the celebratory aspect and the opportunity for women to be given a platform to showcase their achievements to a global audience.

Why is this year’s ‘embrace equity’ theme important?

Equity is a concept close to a lawyer’s heart – I spend my days advising clients that trying to apply the law to the real world is definitely not a one-size-fits-all endeavour.

It recognises there are many different methods of supporting women to thrive professionally and personally and that we should continue to challenge and improve the system to accommodate a wide spectrum of needs.

Any tips for how to climb the ladder as a woman in the corporate world?

Work hard, prove your excellence and carve your own niche – in keeping with the embrace equity theme I think it’s important that women do not feel they need to conform to a certain stereotype to succeed – everyone has their own professional style. Accept that there are certain challenges women face, such as unconscious bias, the mental load of unpaid women’s work and the motherhood penalty that will make each step of your career harder. Then, tackle them head-on; do your research, educate colleagues by pointing out bias and strive for change within your organisation by making positive proposals. Surround yourself with a supportive and diverse peer network with shared values and experiences – having people your trust to rely on in your darkest professional moments is the only way to protect your wellbeing.

Amy HeathAmy Heath (Partner, Clinical Negligence)

Amy has over 10 years’ experience acting for individuals who have sustained catastrophic, life-changing injuries as a result of clinical negligence.

What are your biggest lessons learnt from being a female lawyer?

Be yourself. Trying to be someone else or what you perceive others need or want you to be is exhausting.

Any opportunities/challenges you have faced?

The biggest challenge I have faced is being a working mother. I remember feeling guilty 7 years ago when the day came for me to announce my pregnancy at work and that feeling of guilt has been a common theme ever since. My husband is also a partner in a law firm and we divide our childcare equally. I feel guilt for the impact this has on his career and guilt for the fact that I work full time and don’t see my children as much as I think I should. My challenge is reminding myself of the reasons I have chosen to pursue this career whilst having a family and accepting that the sacrifices and compromises required are worth it.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

It is a chance to celebrate being a woman and how far we have come and then to reflect on how far we still have to go and what we need to do to get there. As a solicitor, I am mindful of the fact that we have just passed the 100-year anniversary of the first woman to be admitted as a solicitor.  We have come a long way in that time with the majority of those being admitted now being women. However, we have a long way to go to address the fact that the most senior positions are still dominated by men and women are still underrepresented at the highest levels of leadership.

Why is this year’s ‘embrace equity’ theme important?

Focussing on equity as this year’s theme is a great way of shining a light on why we need to look at equity as opposed to equality. We all start from different places, have different needs and face different challenges and so giving everyone the same resources and support, which might on the face of it seem fair, in fact, continues to perpetuate inequality. We need to embrace equity as it is about looking at the individual and what their particular circumstances are and adapting accordingly. If we embrace equity we will see the most talented people flourish and have a truly diverse workplace which can only be a good thing.

Any tips for how to climb the ladder as a woman in the corporate world?

This is a tricky question to answer as I consider myself to have some way to go before I reach the top of the ladder. The following three tips are ones that I have received and have resonated with me the most.

  1. Relationships are key. Find a mentor and don’t underestimate the value of being a mentor yourself. Recognise the value in developing relationships and networks with your peers both inside and outside your organisation. Sharing and listening to other people’s perspectives is a great way to learn and develop.
  2. Work hard and know your worth, and be confident in your skill and your work ethic.
  3. Look around at the organisation you are working in. If the culture and values aren’t consistent with your own then it might not be the right place for you to flourish.

Sophie ChapmanSophie Chapman (Partner, Divorce and Family)

Sophie specialises in complex family cases, supporting clients to resolve their financial affairs and arrangements for their children following separation or divorce.

What are your biggest lessons learnt from being a female lawyer?

As a divorce lawyer, I have acted for many women who have given up their careers, particularly after having children.  When their relationship has broken down some years later and their children are by this point in school, they are left feeling financially vulnerable and without a sense of purpose.  This can really impact their self-worth.

I would therefore encourage women to think very carefully before giving up work, notwithstanding that juggling family and work is really hard!  You never know what is around the corner – maintaining your skillset in some form is a way to protect yourself against life’s ups and downs.

Any opportunities/challenges you have faced? 

I have been fortunate to have worked for some inspirational leaders, both women and men, who have listened to the experience of others and championed change.  The allyship of my colleagues has given me the privilege during my legal career of working in inclusive and tolerant environments.

Notwithstanding this, many major life stages that women go through are hard to navigate with work: pregnancy, adoption, parental leave, returning to the office post-leave, juggling work and a young family, and menopause.  There are also the enormous challenges that come with miscarriage, pregnancy loss, IVF and surrogacy.

My daughters are currently 3 and 4 and whilst I love both my role as mum and lawyer, juggling a demanding job and young children have undoubtedly been a pinch point in my life. Women today share the economic load however, there is still much work to be done to ensure that men also share the domestic load. To change this, we need to re-think how we raise our children, to empower the next generation with the tools needed to build equitable households. We also need workplaces to expect and accept that men will play an equal role at home, without men worrying that this will impact their careers, for example through taking shared parental leave, working flexible hours to accommodate the school run and covering children’s school and medical appointments during the working week.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?              

IWD is an opportunity to celebrate the strength and resilience of women, our compassion, bravery and the sung and unsung roles we play in the workplace, in family life and in society more widely.  It is a chance to reflect on the enormous progress which has been made but also on the work that is still to be done to ensure that women can achieve their potential at all stages of life the world over.

For me, it is an opportunity to tell my friends how much I value and appreciate them. And, as the mother of two young daughters it is a time to reflect on how I want the world to look from their perspective as they move into adulthood, and what I can do to help effect change.

Why is this year’s ‘embrace equity’ theme important?

We now know that providing people with equal opportunities isn’t enough, as it fails to recognise and address the differences between people’s historic and lived experiences. It fails to achieve equality. Equity acknowledges that people don’t begin life in the same place or with the same opportunities. It aims to provide people with the resources and opportunities needed to achieve an equal outcome, taking into account the diverse experiences of both individuals and communities.

Any tips for how to climb the ladder as a woman in the corporate world?

Believe that you are equal to and can achieve the same as any man in your sector (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!).

Be yourself.  Have confidence that your unique strengths, experience and skill set as a woman have an invaluable role to play in your workplace.

Be ready to dust yourself off and learn from every knockback.

And critically, always pass your knowledge and experience forward to effect change for and to support those coming up behind you. I believe women have a vital role to play in being the change makers for those who will follow in their footsteps.


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