Is it possible to juggle life, family and the law?

More women may be entering the legal profession, but Amy McLellan finds just as many are leaving
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The Independent Online

Georgina Blackwell’s passion for law was sparked when the family business was embroiled in a dispute with a property developer. Suddenly the 23-year-old beautician found herself writing letters, attending court and cross-examining seasoned solicitors to defend her mother’s Essex beauty salon from the ambitions of one of the country’s biggest homebuilders. After a flurry of injunctions, the case went to trial.

“It was nerve-wracking because the stakes were so high. We were facing hundreds of thousands in damages,” recalls Georgina, now 25 and a student on a two-year LLB at the BPP Law School in London. “It was very intimidating because they had barristers and solicitors against just the two of us. Outside the court I felt really sick, but the second I walked in, I was absolutely fine. In fact, I loved it!”

Not only did Georgina win the case, securing £75,000 in compensation for her mother, but she also decided to pursue a legal career, securing a full scholarship for BPP’s two-year accelerated LLB. She hopes to become a barrister.

In this, she is not alone. More and more women are entering the legal profession. At BPP, the ratio of women to men is roughly 60-40. Across the profession, 47 per cent of those who were called to the Bar in 2010 were women, while an astonishing 62.7 per cent of new trainee solicitors were women.

Yet as these new entrants move up the legal ladder, the ratio tilts decidedly the other way. A survey commissioned by the General Council of the Bar, which has been concerned for some time about the disproportionately high number of female practitioners leaving practice, found that while women make up just under a third (32 per cent) of current practitioners, they account for 42 per cent of all leavers. The survey found a range of factors influenced decisions to leave: half (48 per cent) were influenced by uncertainty over future levels of income, and 43 per cent by their current level of income. Nearly half the women surveyed wanted to spend more time with their families and also cited too much work-related travel (33 per cent), inflexible working arrangements (32 per cent) and pressure of work (31 per cent). Sixty-five per cent of those who had children while in practice felt it had adversely affected their career.

It’s not just barristers who feel these pressures as their careers progress. A recent survey by industry magazine The Lawyer found that efforts to grow the numbers of female equity partners at the UK’s largest firms are failing, with women woefully under-represented at the highest levels of the profession. The firm with the greatest proportion of female equity partners, SJ Berwin, has just 20 per cent, while at Taylor Wessing, which tops the table of firms that have increased the proportion of female partners over five years, the tally is just 9 per cent.

Catrin Griffiths, editor of The Lawyer, said most law firms saw this as their biggest retention issue but were struggling to find a solution to a really complex problem. “The biggest difficulty is that you’re up against the actual choice of women themselves,” says Griffiths.

“It’s not active discrimination, or even covert discrimination, but a long hours culture. Quite a lot of female lawyers end up with other high-powered, fee-earning professionals, such as lawyers or bankers, so when they have children, who stays at home? It’s a choice that couples face together.”

She points out that many of the high-powered female lawyers in Magic Circle firms – and they do exist – have husbands who stay at home to look after the children and run the house. “It’s a real debate,” says Griffiths. “Can you be a dual-career couple in the City?”

For young aspiring female lawyers, the biggest challenge may seem to be securing that all-important pupillage or training contract. But, as seasoned lawyers can testify, the biggest challenges lie ahead: maintaining a career that makes all-or-nothing demands of its practitioners in the middle phase of their career – which usually collides with the key years for starting a family.

“You can’t really prepare people for what it’s going to be like,” says Peter Crisp, CEO of BPP Law School. “You can tell someone that 5pm is the middle of the afternoon in a City law firm, that 9pm is a routine finish, that it’s common to work weekends and cancel social engagements and holidays, but they won’t take that on board until it’s a reality. You need resilience and tenacity to cope with those pressures.

But it’s also very exciting and exhilarating and that’s why people do it.”