Now: Interviews with women in the law

Cris

Cris McCurley grew up and was educated in Yorkshire.  She studied law at Essex University and qualified as a solicitor in 1990.  Cris joined the partnership at Ben Hoare Bell in 2006 to develop specialist Family Law services where the cases involve any kind of international dimension.  Cris’s work and campaigning for victims of gendered abuse and legal aid was recognised in 2014 when she received the Lawyer of the Year award.

Find out what or who inspired Cris to become a lawyer, why she is still inspired today and the challenges faced as a women in the law in the full interview.

Anon

A female partner at a leading Intellectual Property law firm shares her experiences of life as a working mother.  Despite her father, a solicitor, advising her not to go into law she found herself drawn to the idea of being a expert and the law provided her with this opportunity.  Find out what life is like in the legal corporate world, what challenges my interviewee faced as a woman and if there should be a more holistic approach to childcare in the corporate world.

Woodcraft

Elizabeth Woodcraft is a barrister, feminist, campaigner and author.  She regularly publishes podcasts on issues women face within the legal profession such as ‘Being a Feminist Barrister’, blogs about the law and other matters of importance and is a published author.

This interview offers an interesting contrast to the experiences of female solicitors.  As we find out, life as a barrister is very different to that of a solicitor.  Not only are barristers bound by archaic rules and procedures but their work requires different thought processes that are rooted in court procedures, evidence and the rule of law.  Yet despite these differences women still face the same challenges across the legal profession.  What challenges did Elizabeth face as a female barrister?  What does being a feminist barrister actually mean and does the legal profession need to change?

Funke
Funke Abimbola read law at Newcastle Law School and did part of her training in Nigeria.  She is currently leading the legal team of Roche UK, the world’s largest biotech company and is the most senior black lawyer working in the UK pharmaceutical industry.  Funke was voted Career Woman of the Year at the 2015 Women4Africa awards and is a champion of diversity and equality.  In this short interview Funke tells me about her inspirations and role models.  I have also drawn on a separate between Funke and we are The City.

What or who inspired you to enter the legal profession and why?

I come from a medical background and was passionate about science at school, so the expectation was that I would study medicine, not law.  It came as quite a shock to my father when I announced that I actually wanted to pursue a career in law and had decided to choose English, Economics and History for my A-levels!

My mother remains a real inspiration as she has succeeded in reaching the pinnacle of 2 separate medical careers and is probably the most intelligent woman I know. I am also inspired on a daily basis by my son whose cheerful, optimistic approach towards life in general is quite remarkable.

I was mainly inspired to study law by an uncle who had read law at Oxford.  I was greatly encouraged by how successful he had become in business generally.

What have been your biggest challenges?

My biggest challenges by far has been progressing my legal career to this stage, especially once I became a mother.  I have had to overcome some significant hurdles along the way as the legal profession is not known for being diverse and private practice law firms tend to have an inherently male working culture which presents a real challenge for working mothers. I am very fortunate that my current employer has represented the most diverse environment I have ever worked in and I have found that to be really inspiring.

What or who inspires you to stay in the legal profession – have your motives or inspirations changed over time?

My inspiration have certainly changed over time.  I initially qualified as a corporate lawyer and practised as a corporate solicitor for over 10 years in private practice, representing a number of clients across several industries.  However, given my family’s medical background, I enjoyed advising within healthcare in particular and was always surrounded by scientists at home.  Because of this, I really welcomed the opportunity to lead Roche’s legal team.  At long last, my love for science/healthcare and law could finally merge into one!

Who is your legal pioneer?

I do not have a particular legal pioneer but would say I admire every woman who has managed to progress into a senior leadership role within the profession simply because we face a set of unique challenges retaining talented women lawyers.  I am also greatly encouraged and inspired by other diversity champions within the legal profession, whether male or female.

Hilary

In 1971 Hilary Heilbron was called to the bar and ‘took silk’ just over fifteen years later in 1987.  Hilary has extensive experience as counsel both in international arbitration and commercial litigation and has appeared as leading counsel in the Supreme Court, House of Lords and Privy Council. She has also written her mother’s biography, Rose Heilbron; her experience of writing her mother’s life story can be viewed here.  In a recent article, Women at the Bar: an historical perspective Hilary talks about the challenges she faced as a female barrister.  While Heilbron did not personally suffer prejudice from her barrister colleagues in chambers or at the Bar, she is aware that there was an unspoken prejudice from lay clients and solicitors reluctant to instruct a woman.  Other women were not so fortunate.  In her concluding paragraph, Hilary reminds us that.

It is important to pause and put the progress of women barristers in its historical perspective. We have come a long way: a century ago women were not allowed to become barristers. Even 50 years ago there were only about 100 women barristers in practice. It is only very recently that the Bar has started to attract significant numbers of women, encouraged by equal opportunities and a more female-friendly working environment of which the most recent is the opening of the Bar nursery. I hope it will not take another 100 years (or even a 100 years minus one day!) to encourage more women to enter and remain in the profession or to increase the female representation of the judiciary.

Alison

Alison Diduck practised as a Barrister and Solicitor in Winnipeg, Canada from 1984 to 1992 and is now Professor of Law at University College London.  Alison’s research interests are in the field of Child and Family Law, Legal Theory, gender issues and feminist perspectives in law and Legal History and she has published in these areas.

In this interview I find out about Alison’s experiences in Canada, the surprising challenged she faced as a woman in the law, and the challenges women in the law face today.

What challenges, if any, did you face as a woman in law?

In my early teaching days I think I felt that there were more challenges in universities than I felt in my practice among other lawyers and judges. The legal profession at the time in Canada sometimes felt far more progressive than many university law faculties. The first woman was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1982 and she was followed shortly afterward by other women. There had been women on the higher provincial courts before that. There were a number of women on the bench in the Manitoba courts where I worked and it was not unusual to see women in senior positions in the profession. It was almost normal. Some Law Schools took a bit more time to appoint and promote women and accept that law teaching was changing. It was the 1980s though and I suspect that things have now changed.

Recent figures confirm that there are 888 judges in office in Canada and 406 of them are women, including with many making up over half in senior positions such as the Supreme CourtLikewise, three quarters of women make up associates in law firms and Canada and 69% of partners.

Are there obvious differences or similarities of women in the law in Canada compared to the UK?

There is in my experience a huge difference between women in the legal profession in Canada and in England and Wales. The statistics re: judicial appointments, QCs, senior partners in law firms and women at professor level in university law departments bear this out, I suspect. I can’t say for sure, but I wonder if it has to do with the preoccupation with formal equality here?

When I listened to ‘Being a Feminist Barrister’ I got the impression that structural factors or ‘accepted concepts’ are working against women in the law.  How can women overcome issues such as these?

I suppose I think that longstanding ‘accepted concepts’ work against all those who have traditionally not held power. This is a complicated issue though, which I was only able to touch on in my talk. Challenges to taken-for-granted ideas of, for example, equality, justice or objectivity will always be resisted by the status quo but this doesn’t mean those challenges shouldn’t continue.

You talk about ‘autonomy’ in the podcast with regards to women, presumably those who are on the outside of the law.  In your opinion, does this concept also apply to women in this law – do they make their own choices or are they influenced by structural factors?  

This is also a complicated issue, I think. It is difficult to sum up in a few lines. I think we all make our own choices, but I don’t think anyone is able to exercise a form of autonomy that is free of any structural constraints. The problem is that the nature of those constraints and their effect on individuals obviously differs depending such things as cultural, economic and social resources, and the value and power attributed to those.

What advice would you give to women entering the legal profession?

‘To thine own self be true’.

The full podcast, ‘Being a feminist barrister’ featuring Alison Diduck and Elizabeth Woodcraft is available via Pod Academy.

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