Women in Law Part 2 – Our Female Rising Stars

2 Sep 2016

How to define a professional “rising star?” Ultimately the qualities that define a ‘rising star’ begin with a state of mind. ‘Rising stars’ are forward thinking. They understand that their career has levels. Doing just what is asked of them does not sate the fire in their bellies. They have dreams, they have drive and most of all they are the people who make up the pipeline of future business leaders.

Our Chairman Phil Jepson is a legal career expert and he says simply: “There are two types of people in professional roles, those who want a good/reasonably paid job and those who want a career. Job focused people live for the weekend i.e. they work to earn money but their real focus is elsewhere. Career driven people never really stop thinking about their job, they nurture it and it genuinely adds value to their lives and the lives of those around them. They see it as a chance to leave their mark on the world and it is a key part of their identity [1]

The recession which hit in 2008 shook up professional services. As a consequence, the nature of law firms fundamentally changed: Clients expect more for less; partnerships are smaller and harder to reach; technology has advanced significantly allowing lawyers and their clients to connect and communicate globally; law firms have adapted certain commercial principles that have led to top down management and the expectation that lawyers should operate like business people; as well as regulation and deregulation loosening and tightening up different aspects simultaneously[1].

This has been touched upon in a previous article entitled “The Importance of a Following,” but all these changes have given birth to a new breed of lawyer, a modern legal entrepreneur… A rising star. These rising stars are easy to spot on paper and in person, as they display the following 8 skills [2]:

  1. Collaboration skills — they thrive within complex work environments across offices, cities and time zones; 
  2. Customer service — they consider their duty of care to their clients, clients which have paid for a service; 
  3. Emotional Intelligence —  they have the courage to counsel, show empathy and perspective, respect and understanding, and don’t hold their clients at arms length; 
  4. Financial Literacy — they know their away around a financial spreadsheet and can show their clients they know how their business works; 
  5. Process Improvement — they do more with less, learn to improve their systems, source their work effectively and accurately measure their productivity;
  6. Technological Affinity — they are open to and have an affinity for the newest technological advances, and they are aware their clients also rely on technology advancement;
  7. Time Management — they get their priorities in order, learn to delegate and plan ahead;

And perhaps the most important…

8.    They can build relationships. 

Rising stars start building relationships very early on in their career because they understand that it takes time. Rising stars prioritise their relationships, they are continually nurturing their established relationships as well as looking for ways to build new ones. Having these relationships means that rising stars are engaged in their respective markets. They are commercially aware and as a result have a competitive edge because they genuinely know their clients and how to solve their problems [2] (see reference 2 for further expansion on this). 

Figure 1 from Part 1 of the Women in Law series demonstrated that there are obviously a significant number of talented female lawyers in the market, as a decent percentage have earned associate status. However, the graph also shows that a considerable number drop off at this level, with a significantly lower percentage reaching partnership. As concluded in Part 1, firms are struggling to develop a sustainable pipeline of female talent which feed into partnerships [4].

Possible reasons for this include: unconscious bias in the recruitment/promotion process, a lack of flexibility in firm culture to incorporate a healthy work-life balance, and a lack of role models/mentors for young female lawyers to aspire to [3].

Unconscious Bias

Consciously, our brains can only process 40 out of the 11 million bits of information we receive each second. Therefore,  the majority of our reactions and decisions are coming from the unconscious mind and thus biases are completely natural. However, consistent small decisions can accumulate and have big impacts. In terms of gender in the work place, Google has produced studies showing that even small biases can drastically impact female promotion figures. They have also produced studies which show that a diverse workforce are more innovative and perform better. Therefore, diversity gives businesses competitive advantage [7].

Eliminating unconscious bias from the recruitment/promotion process relies on a top down management and structural changes. For example firms designing measures which allow for gender-blind applications and making sure that there is a female presence on the interview panel [3]. As a result, a female rising star may feel she is powerless in the situation. However this is not the case.

If a law firm remains rigid in it’s recruitment process and it is obvious that unconscious bias is not being considered, the individual must ask herself: Is this the right place for me? [5] There are plenty of firms who are trying to combat unconscious bias [6] and they are always keen to increase the number of rising stars in their team. If you are confident in your abilities and can demonstrate the 8 skills discussed above, you have the power to change your circumstances and put yourself in the best position possible.

Law Firm Culture

Sheryl Sandberg (a senior executive at Facebook) highlighted that when a man proclaims he is expecting a child, he is purely congratulated. However, when a woman announces the same thing she is congratulated and then asked what she will do about work [8].

One key argument current leaders have as to why they aren’t promoting more women, is that there aren’t enough women who more experienced than their male counterparts. Many just accept this because of the widespread assumption that women have already or will at some point take time off work to have children. Although, as Linda Woolley (managing partner, Kingsley Naples) aptly states: the time women spend on maternity leave is actually only a small portion of their careers [6].

If a business’ culture and structure are inhospitable to the needs of working parents, then it effectively closes the door on around 50% of it’s talent pool. Clearly law firm culture is deterring women, as a study conducted by the Executive Coaching Consultancy found that 68% of junior female lawyers in private practice do not aspire to a senior role and out of this group, 40% had lost their ambition to do so [12]. The graph in Part 1 of this series provides ample evidence of this.

Senior professional women, such as Lady Judge [3], often advise the next generation of women leaders to make sure they have a supportive husband by their side, emphasising the role that men have to play in achieving gender equality. Ultimately, feminism isn’t a women’s club and men should certainly feel invited in. The genders should not be separate entities with different ideals and for the most part it is apparent that we all want the same thing, to be free to make our own choices away from the prejudices and stereotypes attached to our genders.

An article published in the Guardian back in 2011[9], which told the stories of 4 female lawyers who had children whilst working as lawyers really accentuates the importance of support structures for mothers in the legal profession. Two were fundamentally positive with direct quotes from the women being: “I am more confident in my ability” and “Part-time flexible work fits with my family life.” However, the other two stories are distinctly negative: “I’ve never met another single mother at the bar. There is a reason for that” and “Something had to give, and in this sexist society it was me.” Of course there are other factors which may have influenced their situations, such as the sector they work in, or even the nature of their personalities. Yet, it is also clear that firm structure played a huge part in how their careers developed post-maternity leave. The women who had terrible experiences explicably state that their respective employers did not have the structures (financial or organisational) in place which allowed them to advance their career upon returning to work, whilst balancing the care of their children. Moreover, it was also clear that neither of the women had partners who were supportive of their careers. One of these women finished their story with a statement that is as saddening as it is shocking: “[Staying at home with the children] is a waste of my qualifications and intelligence. It is not fulfilling my ambitions as a person. I suppose the moral of this story is to think very carefully before you have children. It could ruin your career.” 

It is incredibly infuriating but unfortunetely there will still be businesses and business leaders who operate in ways that enforce the stereotype that ‘women raise the children’ and ‘men bring home the bacon,’ despite studies such as UN Women (McKinsey 2015 data) finding that mothers are 15% more likely to express interest in being a top executive [10]. Yet, there are ways for women to avoid this archaic way of thinking on their way up the career ladder. As a woman and a young professional, you do have the power to put yourself in a supportive environment. Take a closer look at your firm and make sure you are in the right place at the right time in your career.

Find a Mentor

An article written by the Lawyer expresses 5 tips for women who want to be leaders, 4 of them revolve around skills already discussed in the characteristics of a ‘Rising Star.’ The fifth, which many senior women will vouch for is: Find a mentor [6].

Female rising stars can benefit so much from developing relationships with women who have climbed the career ladder successfully. Not only will the mentee be privy to a vast bank of skills and knowledge, but having the support from an esteemed business leader will undoubtedly boost the confidence of any young professional. Ultimately there is more of a glass ceiling for women rising stars because the majority of business decision makers are men. Therefore, a mentor really comes into play at this stage, as Lady Barbara Judge CBE says “Sometimes it takes a woman to open the door so that another woman would walk through it [3].”

Part 3 in this trilogy will explain what our business intends to do to help this process. Although not a law firm, we too have our part to play in changing law firm culture to boost gender equality. We are professional career experts and business consultants and therefore work with lawyers from when they are only fee earners up until they are running international law firms. But more than this, we are driven to empower rising stars and turn them into the business leaders of tomorrow. 


  1. Phil Jepson. 18/08/2016. Direct quotes from ‘The Golden Ticket – how to build the career you really want.” Barclays, Manchester. 
  2. Jepson Holt. 01/07/2016. Why a Following is essential. http://jepsonholt.com/2016/07/01/why-a-following-is-essential/.
  3. MEN. 20/03/2016. “Women need the chance to show how good they are.”http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/business/women-need-chance-show-how-11056950?ptnr_rid=260676&icid=EM_MEN_Nletter_Business_largeteaser_Image_Story1
  4. Jepson Holt. 29/07/2016. Women in Law Part 1 – Leadership. http://jepsonholt.com/2016/07/29/4829/
  5. Jepson Holt Insights. 27/04/2016. “Why would any woman want to work in a place where she is held back by her gender?” http://insights.jepsonholt.com/post/102dc7i/why-would-any-woman-want-to-work-in-a-place-where-she-is-held-back-by-her-gender 
  6. The Lawyer. 09/03/2015. “Where are the women law firm leaders?” http://www.thelawyer.com/issues/tl-9-march-2015/where-are-the-women-law-firm-leaders/#Families_flexibility_and_practice_areas_1 
  7. Business Insider. 11/02/2016. “Here’s the presentation Google gives employees on how to spot unconscious bias at work.” http://uk.businessinsider.com/google-unconscious-bias-training-presentation-2015-12/#our-conscious-mind-then-is-processing-only-a-minute-fraction-of-what-our-unconscious-mind-is-processing-5
  8. The Economist. 12/03/2016. “Feminist economics deserves recognition as a distinct branch of the discipline.” http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21694529-feminist-economics-deserves-recognition-distinct-branch-discipline
  9. The Guardian. 28/04/2011. “The Law of Motherhood.” https://www.theguardian.com/law/2011/apr/28/barristers-solicitors 
  10. UN Women. 2015. McKinsey 2015 data.
  11. Legal Week. 26/07/2016. Women fall by the wayside in 2016 partner promotions round. http://www.legalweek.com/sites/legalweek/2016/07/26/women-fall-by-the-wayside-in-2016-partner-promotion-round/?slreturn=20160802130032 
  12. The Lawyer. 06/11/2016. One third of young female lawyers have lost their ambition to reach the top. http://l2b.thelawyer.com/issues/l2b-online/one-third-of-young-female-lawyers-have-lost-their-ambition-to-reach-the-top/