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Billable hours vs senior leadership: the challenges to female senior partners

Managing client needs while running a law firm is a tough call. Four leading partners – Fiona Rice, formerly of Linklaters, Sue Laing of Boodle Hatfield, Pamela Thompson of Eversheds and Tina Wisener of Doyle Clayton – share their advice.

Women in lawSenior partners are prized for their expertise, their knowledge and their skill. They spend 90 per cent of their time serving clients – leaving a mere 10 per cent of time to do all the stuff that makes the business work: leadership, motivation, management. So how do they do it? According to Fiona Rice, Sue Laing, Pamela Thompson and Tina Wisener it’s about assembling the right team, leading them well – and being willing to “lean in”.

Creating and leading a great team

Tina Wisener, partner and head of the Thames Valley office at Doyle Clayton, says that while she does have days where 80 per cent of her time is spent dealing with management issues, a strong team helps ensure that excellent service is not interrupted. “I make sure clients are introduced to other members of the team at an early stage,” she says. “They know that if I’m not available – because I am in a partner’s meeting, for example – there is someone else within the team that they know and who can advise without delay.”

Once you’ve got the right people in place, leading them well is key. Sue Laing has been a partner at Boodle Hatfield since 1981 and was head of the firm’s Private Client & Tax Department across its London and Oxford offices from 2001 to 2011. “The single most important rule is to encourage, support and mentor the team that you are bringing on or who work for you,” she says. “Lead by example and trust the team, because if you have taught them well they will not let you down. Always have an open door policy; and try always to listen first, especially before criticising.”

Pamela Thompson, senior partner at Eversheds, takes a similar view. “What works is being collaborative and engaging with all the people that you’re working with – and doing it in a way which really empowers them to help you. We can all really benefit from the ideas other people can give us. What doesn’t work is if you try to impose in a high-handed way, or if, in a leadership role, you try to make it more about yourself than the people you’re helping to lead.”

Laing also points out that being an effective partner is about your personal qualities – not just your technical expertise. “Ensuring that you focus clearly on what is important to the clients; developing a really good memory for all the balls in the air at any one time; being extraordinarily nice to your inevitably long-suffering and supportive family!” These, she suggests, are the essential things to get the job done well.

Leaning in

If senior partnership is a challenge for all lawyers, do women face particular challenges? It’s generally acknowledged that there is a shortage of women at the top – a 2012 report from McKinsey found that in 92 per cent of large firms, more than three quarters of top jobs were filled by men – despite the fact that more than 50 per cent of those entering the profession are women.

“Research shows us that the shortage of women in senior positions is the result of many different elements,” points out Fiona Rice, programme director of the Women in Law Leadership Programme at Cambridge Judge Business School, and a former banking partner at Linklaters. “The first step is keeping women in the profession, which is not a given with many leaving before partnership. Step two is supporting women in leadership roles. Many women are getting to the top – the issue is helping them stay there.”

Part of the reason, says Rice, could be that the profession’s philosophy – neatly summarised in McKinsey’s report as “anytime, anywhere” – is perceived by many as not necessarily compatible with home life. But, she says, it’s also up to women step up. “Some women will get to a certain position and feel comfortable. So they’re happy to be a salaried partner but they don’t want to put themselves forward for equity. That is, of course, their choice, but there are times when with additional support, such as coaching and mentoring, they might become comfortable in stepping forward.”

Thompson points out that the profession has come a long way from the days when, she says, “it was broadly thought that women would not reach senior roles, particularly once they had a family. We are not in that position now. We’ve progressed enormously. We are getting far better as a profession about realising the benefits that diversity can bring and are being more flexible about working arrangements. I think we are seeing and will continue to see differences for the better as a consequence of that.”

So there may be no easy answers, but there are great opportunities. “I have been extremely lucky in my career,” says Laing, “as I was promoted at an early age and have been encouraged throughout. As a result, I don’t think that it should be difficult [to progress], but if there is any advice I would offer then it would always be ‘under-promise and over-deliver’.”

Rice says women are often very aware of the issues that accompany senior roles. “To some extent, there is a tendency to over-analyse future challenges. ‘How am I going to manage being a partner in a law firm?’ ‘What about the children?’ And actually they haven’t found the right partner or bought the house yet!”

And Thompson says the first piece of advice she’d give a young woman who wants to reach the top of the profession is “don’t think like that.” “You go into the law wanting to be a lawyer,” she points out. “Ground yourself with the idea of being a lawyer first. Gain the respect of your clients and of your colleagues and managers. Then you can start to develop other skills. Hold a steady course. Find your niche. Be yourself. And, most importantly – enjoy it.”