Female law students share their thoughts on succeeding in the legal profession.
More women than men are now entering the legal profession yet relatively few women lawyers hold senior positions or become partners in law firms. So, what needs to be done to change this?
By Dr Aileen Ballantyne
Following on from last edition’s feature on the experiences of female graduates in the engineering profession, this time we ask four female students in the University’s Law School about the ‘leaky pipe’ syndrome in the law sector.
There are now more women than men graduating from the Edinburgh Law School – but a recent large independent survey by the Law Society of Scotland showed that the gender pay gap between men and women remained at 23 per cent last year – a change from a 42 per cent gap five years earlier (Profile of the Profession, December 2018).
Introducing Spaces for Voices
In a bid to drive equality and diversity in law, the University has recently set up The Edinburgh Foundation for Women in Law: Spaces for Voices, co-founded by Professor Lesley McAra (previously Head of Edinburgh Law School) and alumna Karina McTeague. It provides a safe space for conversations about the challenges and opportunities for women working in law, and organises motivational events and talks.
Director of the Foundation, Annie Sorbie, law lecturer and former partner in a law firm, says: “We believe that there is room for as many voices as possible in the gender equality conversation within the legal sphere, and that the Foundation is uniquely placed to engage with and influence key players.
“This is through our extensive alumni network and strong relationship with the legal profession, and through our role in educating the future legal profession to ensure that gender and wider equality issues are embedded before entering the field,” she explains. “We know there is much to do but we are committed to effecting real and lasting change in the legal landscape.”
We believe that there is room for as many voices as possible in the gender equality conversation within the legal sphere, and that the Foundation is uniquely placed to engage with and influence key players.
Edinburgh law student Julita Burgess, who has two young children, believes change could be achieved by moving away from the culture of working long hours. “A number of senior women lawyers I know work part time,” she says. “Trimming the working hours would certainly make the business of running a law firm less viable economically, so maybe a healthy solution can only be achieved with a different pattern of legal services provision. Some innovative firms are experimenting with engaging some lawyers as external consultants, for specific projects.”
Looking ahead, she continues: “What I hope for in my own career is to set my children an example of a mum who has the grit to follow her dreams, is able to see them through, works in a field that makes the world a better place, and has time to enjoy her family.”
What I hope for in my own career is to set my children an example of a mum who has the grit to follow her dreams, is able to see them through, works in a field that makes the world a better place, and has time to enjoy her family.
Fellow student Lorna MacFarlane feels there are assumptions by some that certain types of legal careers aren’t suitable for women, such as corporate/ commercial law, mainly because of the perception that these areas of practice involve long hours and some travel. “Students definitely shouldn’t be put off pursuing these careers at an early stage – while these assumptions don’t seem to be held by the majority, it may be useful for students to have the chance to hear from female commercial lawyers at careers events at university,” she says. “It would also help lawyers of all genders if there was a greater understanding and encouragement for men who choose to balance childcare with their careers.”
Lorna has been to several of the Foundation’s events: “It’s encouraging to see this initiative and I’m looking forward to seeing it develop in the future.”
Supporting each other
The idea that women should support each other in promoting change is also a strong feature of the Edinburgh law students’ recommendations. “The spirit of fraternity is promoted and enjoyed within the faculty of advocates. The same should be instilled among law students from the first year of the LLB,” says student Miral Jaber. “What I hope for is the opportunity to prove that I can go as far as I like. What was it Madeleine Albright said about a special place in hell?” Miral ponders – referring to a comment by the former US Secretary of State that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other”.
What I hope for is the opportunity to prove that I can go as far as I like.
For student Kay Cuthbertson, what the legal world needs now to ensure gender equality in the future is transparency: “Law firms need to ensure transparency surrounding salary, internal and external recruitment procedures, and a no-tolerance approach to any form of discrimination in the workplace. Many women aren’t even aware of there being a gender pay gap in their own workplace because no one talks about their wage.
“Most importantly,” she adds, “gender equality needs to be intersectional. There are so many other factors which add on to gender, such as race, age, social background, ethnicity, education, disability and LGBTQ. To achieve gender equality we have to look at all of these factors in tandem, hearing voices from each perspective.”
Kay became aware of Spaces for Voices when she attended a talk arranged by the initiative for students by Patricia Russo, Director of Yale Law School. The experience had a profound effect: “Patty was incredible. That event created a space where women in law could talk openly about experiences they’d had and realise that they were not alone in those experiences. Walking out of that talk, I felt invincible – I felt I could achieve anything. It was amazing.”
Watch a video about the Edinburgh Foundation for Women in Law.
About the writer: Alumna Dr Aileen Ballantyne, PhD Creative Writing & Modern Poetry (2014), is a former medical correspondent for the Sunday Times and the Guardian. She has twice been commended in the British Press Awards. Her first full collection of poetry is published at the end of this year.