Burford Capital Logo Light Burford Capital Logo Dark

Key takeaways: London’s leading women lawyers share tips on origination and career growth at ‘Rising Stars’ breakfast panel

December 13, 2019

In November of 2019, we gathered around 40 rising stars of litigation and arbitration from City law firms for an interactive panel on business origination and career advancement; we share key takeaways below.

  • Moderator: Elizabeth Fisher, Senior Vice President, Burford Capital
  • Penny Madden QC, Co-Chair of International Arbitration and Partner, Gibson Dunn
  • Elizabeth Shimmin, Partner, Jenner & Block
  • Sophie Nappert, Independent Arbitrator, 3VB, and Moderator, OGEMID
  • Alexandra Conroy, Executive Coach for the Legal Industry, Alexandra Conroy Ltd

On what to do about the persistent gender gap in law

Penny Madden QC: The thing that will move the needle is the business imperative. That's why The Equity Project is so exciting. The idea that women can come forward with a client and an identified matter and see whether Burford will fund it—that gives so much kudos to the recognition of business generation.

We also see that business imperative from clients. We have a lot of clients who now track gender diversity. We have to give them figures and there are deals where we will be penalized if we don't. Facebook amongst others will penalize their service providers if they don't meet quite challenging requirements.

The number of female General Counsels is also moving the needle. They are asking not only for the rough statistics on diversity but who is leading their matters and whether there are women coming forward to do the advocacy.

On demonstrating confidence

Penny Madden QC: The more junior female lawyer has to step up and say, 'I can do this', which takes digging deeply into their own confidence. But it also takes the client to agree. So, we need to educate clients about the business imperative.

Elizabeth Shimmin: We need to make sure that we put ourselves forward. One of the issues is that women at mid to senior associate level tend to self-select out of the promotion process and not push themselves forward because they want to tick all the boxes. As women we like to be completely confident that we can do the next step before we go for it; our male counterparts maybe don’t have the same self-doubts that we have.

Sophie Nappert: In regard to the self-doubting, a woman not only has to step forward but also convince herself that she can do this. As a woman arbitrator, I see my colleagues trying to increase diversity in tribunals. The LCIA for example has developed a practice of deliberately placing a younger woman as chair alongside a couple of arbitrators who are often considerably more senior and who then look at the composition of the tribunal and say, "Who's she? I'm supposed to be chair!" Then you have to step up and chair that tribunal with two male colleagues who will be completely civil and professional, but who may not understand why you are there. Use their scepticism as incentive to do a perfect job.

Alexandra Conroy: The sponsorship role is a great example of that and having someone willing to put their political capital and connections behind you or trust in you to stand up and do a fantastic job. But as women we need to seek out those sponsorship relationships rather than waiting for someone at the firm to just hold one in front of us.

When I was going up for partnership, I naively thought that if I worked all the hours in the world and I was really good at the technical aspect of my job then partnership would just magically appear in front of me. If I was going back to give myself advice, I would say there is an element of client origination and of going up to partnership that has nothing to do with the hours that you work or your technical expertise. It’s about sponsorship, visibility and learning how to promote yourself and your achievements.

On embracing self-promotion

Alexandra Conroy: In this industry you need to actively communicate your achievements because that is what your male colleagues are doing. You need to be vocal about your achievements and the client relationships that you are developing and find an authentic way to do that. Women may feel a bit uncomfortable about bragging about their achievements, but there are other ways that you can articulate the great things that you are doing. There are nuanced ways to promote yourself, but we have to do it more deliberately than our male counterparts.

We often assume that others know our ambitions and that's not true. Our male counterparts regularly ask, “When am I going to make partner?” I have seen situations where people have been at a similar level and the male counterpart was made up beforehand. When this was raised the reaction from the powers-that-be was, "I didn't even realise you cared that much about making partner." So, there is a necessity to own your ambition and articulate that.

Elizabeth Shimmin: Be visible; it's not enough to just do good work. Show your client that you are on top of the details. Where possible, speak up on conference calls and in meetings. Do that extra 20 minutes of preparation. Think about a couple of key points that you know all the detail about, plan in your head what you think the client needs to know and, when the right moment arises, get your point across.

On how to originate business

Penny Madden QC: From my experience, you should try to have as many touchpoints and contacts as possible. Start by firstly doing a really good job with your client but also have that breakthrough confidence moment so that they see you as the person who is taking their cases forward. The transition in terms of originating business is when you become the trusted advisor, and that means that they are going to come back to you. They will probably come back to the team, but they see you as somebody who they want to look to for advice.

From a client's perspective, they know a two-year arbitration means frequent conference calls and lots of meetings. An internal General Counsel or counsel's office have their own internal clients. So, they're thinking two things: I know this person is going to be expert, but do I actually want to spend any time with this person? And do I want to put them in front of my ultimate client and witnesses?

One piece of good advice I was given was to put people in front of clients who you think are better than you. It is the most valuable thing because most clients want a team and they want to see that you have got faith in the people you work with—that's where the leadership starts to come in.

Alexandra Conroy: Consider the difference between our jobs versus our career. A lot of us are so desperate to have high expertise and do a really good job that we sometimes don't do some of those activities to get sticky with clients. Of course, it adds X hours to our day, but maybe those hours in terms of our career are more valuable than sitting at our desks until 2am doing the job.

The job is for the firm; they're the ones who receive the benefit of those hours. You will get experience but when it gets to midnight it's the firm who's getting the hours not you. So, what hours of the day are we willing to put into our own careers selfishly? That is where the value is for us as individuals.

Elizabeth Shimmin: You have to go outside your comfort zone and work out what you are good at. If you're good at public speaking then get yourself on some panels, there are organizations for more junior lawyers that are a fairly safe space to go and do your first speaking engagement. If you're someone that is good at writing thought pieces, then do that.

It is a long-term game. Stay in touch with the people you meet; you never know where they may end up and if they'll call you one day.

Penny Madden QC: Also think about the next issues that are likely to arise. Look to identify either topics that are going to be of interest to clients or identify clients that have got particular problems or are likely to have particular problems. Have a dialogue with the partners that you work with, with your mentors and say, "If I was a partner, here are the clients that I think we could go after." Make life easier for them and then be included in the eventual pitch. You are showing that outward business development focus.

On not asking permission

Alexandra Conroy: If you want to be a partner you need to step into the shoes of being a partner before reaching that level. I wish I had told myself to stop asking permission. You don’t need permission to try to add value for the client by writing articles or going for a coffee with someone who's at your level. Sometimes as women we ask too much permission. If we think about what a partner would do, and we are thinking in that mindset before we step into those shoes, then obviously there is no question that we have the right attitude.

On setting your own pace

Audience: One thing that women struggle with is that when you are at mid to senior associate level this seems to coincide with maternity leave. Often, they are not present in the office for a while and we are still very much a profession which has a career ladder. There is a perception that you have to do it within a certain time frame.

Penny Madden QC: I think that's a misconception. I think there are hares and tortoises, you just take ownership and work out when is the right time. And the right time might not be now, the right time may be at some point in the future but there are no one-size fits all.

Alexandra Conroy: It's helpful when the men are treated the same as women. In my experience when the men are also saying, ‘I'm going home to pick up my kids’, it becomes a normal narrative of how adults run their life. If you encourage that then suddenly it's not, ‘I'm doing this because I'm a woman’. It's one of those things where both genders need to have that flexibility, then hopefully it becomes less stigmatised.

Penny Madden QC: Parental leave should be your own choice, if you want to take the full year off or if you want to work flex-time when you come back. You just need to take ownership of which option is right for you and your partner.

Alexandra Conroy: When you come back from maternity leave you may need to be more proactive about saying: ‘I'm still here and up for it’.  There can be a tendency for people to assume, rightly or wrongly, that you now have something else in your life that means work takes a backseat. So, you have got to be a bit more vocal about the fact that you are up for the challenge.