WOMEN have to be encouraged to believe that they are as good as men, according to Amanda Royce, the new chairwoman of the Association of Women Solicitors (AWS).
Mrs Royce needs no such encouragement herself. Now 44, she qualified as a solicitor only 12 years ago, but runs a successful sole practice and has started up the judicial ladder with her recent appointment as a part-time industrial tribunal chairwoman in Kent.
Women in a profession such as the law tend to be unsure of their own qualities and hang back, Mrs Royce believes, unlike those in, for example, the media, where she began her working life. She was in journalism, including a stint on the London Evening Standard diary, until her mid-twenties, when she embarked on legal training.
She set up her own practice seven years ago in Mayfield, East Sussex - near the farm that is home for her, her husband and their two children, aged 11 and 13. It was the only way, she says, to do the kind of work she wanted. At first, she was a regular agent prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Service; now her practice is more generalised.
'The problem for women of my generation is mainly the children thing,' she says. 'I'd like to encourage women to deal with their ambivalent attitude to having children and working - but so much depends on their set-up, where they live, whether their husbands have high powered jobs, or even whether they have jobs at all.'
The 6,000 members of the AWS are of all ages, backgrounds and areas of practice. The so-called sidelining of women into 'feminine' work areas such as family law happens less, Mrs Royce believes. 'In the AWS at least, we have a lot of commercial lawyers, tax lawyers, construction and European specialists,' she says. 'What is sad is that I read about really interesting women, but we don't see them coming in as members. I would like to see high-flyers participating more. They are so busy with their careers and see joining as unnecessary. But once there are any problems, that is when they look around for us. It's a pity.'
The AWS was formerly the 1919 Club, named after the first year in which women were allowed to qualify as solicitors. The organisation, which recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, became virtually moribund in the 1960s and 1970s. Revival came when the Law Society adopted the association as an official group, and injected funds and other help, including a committee secretary.
The AWS is slowly emerging from its chrysalis, Mrs Royce says. Until recently it was seen as merely a social group. Its current brief is far wider, touching on issues of importance to professional women: guidelines for part-time workers, maternity rights for partners, refresher and returner courses.
Last year, the group lobbied successfully for the introduction of part-time practising certificates. Parliamentary lobbying is carried out with the help and guidance of Judy Foy of the Law Society's press and parliamentary unit.
Women are an important part of the workforce, even though the law has lagged behind other areas in recognising the fact, Mrs Royce says. Some firms are better than others, but the trainee or prospective employee has no way of discovering these. That, says Mrs Royce, is why 'networking' is so important, and also why so many women, particularly those outside the London area, opt eventually for running their own practices. Self-confidence is all-important, Mrs Royce says. 'Women should volunteer for everything, go for everything, and think about the consequences later.' She has never questioned her own importance, never thought of herself as 'only a woman'.
'It may sound arrogant, but it's what I'd like other women to say. They should say 'I want that job', instead of asking so many analytical questions. They are getting braver, but the trouble is no one knows how she is going to feel once she has a family. And a lot of firms put women in the back room. It's very demoralising, so in the end, many of them say, 'I'd rather just be at home with the children'.'
On the other hand, she believes, men are becoming more tolerant, understanding and appreciative of women's value. 'But given the economic climate and the tremendous pressure on jobs, with the best will in the world, it's all gone out of the window. When the chips are down, men feel it's the chaps who need the jobs. It's up to women to say 'I will be as good for your firm as the men'.'
Women often hold back from enjoying themselves, Mrs Royce says, for fear of seeming frivolous, or even unprofessional. That is no problem for her. She is fond of carriage driving, judges dressage and trains her own horses - she has four on the farm at present. She also admits to enjoying choral singing, shopping, and flying with her husband in their vintage aircraft. 'Women don't give themselves enough treats,' she says. 'But the more treats you have, the harder you tend to work.'
Traditionally, the AWS chairwoman's job is not highly political, but that does not prevent Mrs Royce from viewing this as an 'exciting period' in which to head the group.
'I want to give it a real impetus this year,' she says. 'I want it to become more and more of a force to be reckoned with.'
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