Law: 'You have to fit in with the laddish mentality, or lose out'

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Sexual harassment in the legal profession scaled new heights recently when a young solicitor was sent by her law firm to attend a "lap dancing" show.

The lawyer, according to the Young Women Lawyers (YWL), was asked to accompany a Japanese client to a London striptease venue to celebrate the completion of a high-profile acquisition.

Tara Davies, a YWL committee member who heard the woman's account at a YWL meeting for trainee lawyers, says this is one of several recent incidents involving young female lawyers who are required to take part in male-dominated social events organised by some City law firms.

"As soon as she realised where she was," says Ms Davies, "she walked out of the place."

Despite efforts to stamp out sexual harassment and discrimination in the legal profession, women do not appear to be getting a better deal.

Preliminary findings of a YWL survey, which interviewed 300 female law graduates at the Barbican's Graduate Fair in November, reveal 80 per cent believe they will encounter sexism in their law careers. And what concerns many women is that there still exists a "laddish mentality" which goes right to the top of the profession.

The Lord Chancellor himself is now the subject of a legal challenge which accuses him of supporting the very same "old boys' network" upon which the legal macho culture is based.

Jane Coker, senior partner of a London immigration practice, has issued proceedings against the Lord Chancellor's department, claiming it breached the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 in the appointment of a Herbert Smith partner, Garry Hart, as Lord Irvine's special adviser.

Ms Coker, a Labour supporter, complains that because the post was not advertised, she was denied the opportunity of proving her own "formidable candidacy". She says she has advised Labour MPs and spoken at Labour events.

More significantly, she says, she has the kind of experience of legal aid that Lord Irvine and Mr Hart do not have. She complains: "It's not as if I'm a rank outsider, I should have had a chance." And she says there is nothing in European Union and UK law which excludes specialist government posts from sex discrimination legislation.

This month, Denise Kingsmill, the first female deputy chairman of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, blamed a waste of female talent on the "macho atmosphere" of law firms. Speaking at a Law Society Commerce and Industry dinner, she said law firms encouraged the predominance of "barons" - partners who, by controlling access to important clients, wield disproportionate power within firms.

Ms Davies, a 28-year-old lawyer in a West End practice, says from accounts she has heard the dominance of men in some firms means women have to fit in with the macho culture or lose out. On a basic level, says Ms Davies, this includes pressure to go out drinking.

"A lot of women," she says, "can't drink as much as men. And you come in the next morning with a hangover and they don't."

There is also, she says, pressure to be seen working late. At the end of the working day Ms Davies claims women have to make a choice: "You either wimp out early or you're 'one of the lads', hanging around until really late."

Today, slightly more women are entering the profession than men but still only 17 per cent reach partner level.

In the past 30 years, says Ms Coker, more and more women have become lawyers but the proportion who achieve partnership has hardly changed.

Ms Kingsmill says: "The unreconstructed would argue that women leave to have babies, and realising the infinite joys of motherhood, never return. But this is too facile an explanation."

She argues that women are afraid to enquire about the possibility of part-time work in case they are put on the "mummy track" and excluded from the partnership. To avoid this they ignore their body clocks until after they have become partners, only to undergo years of fertility treatment to conceive, she says.

The macho culture, Ms Kingsmill maintains, is built up by white male lawyers in commercial firms who vote into partnership those lawyers who remind them of themselves when they were young. This means law firms are missing out on talented women, who opt out of private practice for a better working environment in industry.

Eve Solomon is just such a lawyer. She joined the Independent Television Commission after the City law firm in which she was working did not make her partner. She explains: "They knew I wanted to have a family and I was told that they wanted to make me the next partner within a couple of years, and that my future was assured." But shortly after starting maternity leave, she says, the firm told her it had recruited another partner. The firm, Collyer-Bristow, has declined to comment.

"I returned to the firm still as a senior associate, but knowing full well that I had absolutely no career prospects," Ms Solomon says. She left to become deputy secretary at the Independent Television Commission and this month joins the Radio Authority as head of legal services.

According to the initial results of the YWL survey, a 71 per cent of graduates thought they still had to do better than men to succeed in private practice. Seventy per cent thought law firms were unsympathetic to women who had child-care responsibilities.

Nevertheless, nearly half said they did not think they would be held back from becoming senior partners or heads of chambers because of their sex.

This may just be blind optimism on behalf of young people who have invested a lot of time and money in their careers. Ms Davies warns: "It's only when they start work that they will see their male colleagues doing better than them for no good reason."