Way beyond Legally Blonde
Hello and welcome to issue 42 of Womanthology. This fortnight we’re focusing on Women in Law. I can’t think of many sectors more crammed with female talent but with so much work still to do to change the prevailing culture to level the playing field so that women don’t get left behind at senior levels. Women make up the majority of the new entrants to the sector, but as is the case in so many areas, the statistics for women fall away and gender balance decreases sharply as seniority increases.
In preparation for this edition I’ve been trying to recall all the female TV and film lawyers that had shaped my perception of what a female lawyer would be before I started to work in the legal sector eight years ago, albeit not as a lawyer myself.
A collection of irritating women (… and men)
First off there was 90s ‘comedy’ / drama heroine Ally McBeal. The show seemed to revolve around Ally and a collection of irritating women (and for the sake of equality, an equally irritating bunch of men). Then there was the biopic Erin Brockovich, which despite winning Julia Roberts an Oscar, always suffered from the Pretty Woman effect for me – so no matter how good Julia Roberts was in anything else I couldn’t (and still can’t to this day) get used to her as any other character. And finally, there was Reece Witherspoon as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. I’m happy to say I’ve never sat through this one but please do let me know if I’m missing anything life changing.
Rather worryingly too, all of these female lawyers on TV and in film were white and blonde.
No disrespect to blonde, white women intended (I am one myself) but it is fair to say that the real world women in the law I met, as you might expect, were way beyond Legally Blonde and this edition of Womanthology is a bit of an unashamed return for me. The hugely talented women I met in the legal sector in my former career regularly astounded me with their steely determination and tenacity. It is a pleasure to be able to share them with you.
So in this edition I wanted to hear from women like Carol Storer, who is fighting to champion the lawyers who are serving the most vulnerable members of society through legal aid, which along with the associated challenges of access to justice are rarely given any profile in the mainstream press. I wanted to change that.
Female friendly working as a business strategy
I also wanted to hear from women like Marilyn Stowe who has built up a formidable reputation in the area of family law, both at home and overseas. She shares a Carol’s passion for equal access to justice for all our society and she runs a rapidly expanding practice that is staffed by workforce that is almost 70% female, and indeed she believes it has been fundamental to the success of the business over the past 33 years.
Dana Denis-Smith set up a legal outsourcing service all made up of working mothers to fly in the face of all the naysayers who thought women who’ve had children can no longer cut it on the workforce. Dana has received a Timewise Power Part Time List and her latest project is called First 100 Years. It is celebrating the build up to the first centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which first paved the way for women to become lawyers.
Build your own network
We also hear from the kick-ass women on WILL (Women in Law London) who couldn’t find a network to support their pre-partnership aspirations, so in true Womanthology style they set up their own. What is not to love about these women?
We’ve got Alexandra Wrage, who is kicking international bribery into touch, along with Elena Ursache of the Competition and Markets Authority who is ensuring that corporate monoliths play fairly under competition law. Grace Ononiwu OBE CCP – Chief Crown Prosecutor for the West Midlands region is responsible for overseeing prosecutions shares her experiences.
We also have some legal escapees – Natalie Rodgers who left practice to set up her business development and marketing consultancy that specialises in the legal sector. Last, but by no means least, we have Claire Monkhouse who has taken a career break from the law to set out on an international adventure of self-discovery shares what she’s learnt during her legal career hiatus.
You can keep your media portrayals of women in the law. I chose my real world legal eagle heroes every time.