I have long wondered about Lady Justice being stuck on the top of iconic court houses all over the world as the symbol of our aspirations for impartial fairness. She braves the elements, scantily clad all year round, not wobbling or wavering, steadfastly multitasking as she keeps the scales in perfect equilibrium whilst resolutely brandishing the sword of truth and keeping her jaunty headgear at an appropriate angle.
Meanwhile, in the buildings over which Justice presides, real flesh and blood women lawyers, tend not to be so elevated. At least not when the stakes or status or remuneration are high or promotional steps beckon. This is a generality, for sure, and thankfully, there are exceptional exceptions that buck the trend and, of course, those whose ambitions seem to be more frequently thwarted and whose talent the profession does not seem to recognise or fully benefit from, are not limited to women. Nonetheless, it does seem to be easier for certain types of cream to float to the top, despite the sterling work of the Judicial Appointments Commission and the genuine commitment to diversity of the Law Society, Bar Council and other professional organisations.
Talking of trend-buckers, Christina Blacklaws, recent-ex President of the Law Society of England and Wales is an exceptional multitalented lawyer, determined to use her time as President to shift the very tectonic plates of the legal profession to enhance access to justice for all through releasing the potential, energy and innovation of everyone toiling at the legal coalface and dedicated to the rule of law.
To that end, over 2018/19, Christina set up a series of “roadshow” events where she met groups of lawyers, women and men, and encouraged them to talk about their professional experiences in their organisations and to reflect upon how their potential was, or might be, restricted by structures and behaviours within the profession; what was holding individuals back in their career development; where the profession was thus losing experience and skill; how knowledge and capability seeps away and is lost; what can be done to support lawyers in their wider lives to ensure that this vast treasure of expertise is not wasted; key practices and people who had made important difference, positive and negative, to individuals’ progress and professional growth. By having the same loose structure at each roadshow, Christine interrogated the anecdotes and evidence relating to why there is still a paucity of women leaders in all branches of the legal profession and why promotion of women to key roles is glacially slow.
On 22 August 2018 I had the privilege of joining one such round table session at the grand Law Society HQ on Chancery Lane. Christina seemed to have decided that she would learn more about the obstacles on the route; the stumbling blocks; the traps and pitfalls; the exhaustion; the frustrations and even the boredom of those engaged in the climb, rather than from the description of the view from the top. Christina gently questioned, carefully logged the examples, looked for themes and patterns, listened hard and promised to collate her findings into plans of actions and calls to arms.
In our session, topics which surfaced frequently included: why women’s professional lives, shaped particularly by additional caring roles, does not fit the traditional career progression routes and why trying to shoe-horn ourselves into the conventional partner/QC/judicial career path is never going to work for women; why going a different career development route was perceived by some as “cheating”; that disapproval of this career “cheating” could be communicated in such a way as to discredit the “lesser” achievement and thus undermine confidence; that ambitious female lawyers felt unfairly and adversely “pigeon-holed” if frustrations with the mainstream legal culture had led them to set up, or be employed in, say a small legal practice and which, thus, seemed to somehow to detracted from their professional track-record; that whilst increased opportunities had opened up for women and other “diverse” lawyers of late, the particularly well-paid, high status opportunities still somehow tended to evade women; conscious and unconscious bias; the additional problems faced by those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds; as well as gratitude that key partners (romantic and business) trainers, mentors and bosses had made a huge difference at key times, but that too much still depended on luck. There was immediate bonding over familiarity with difficult situations; much eye rolling; and a degree of cheerful acceptance. No bras were burnt. No revolutions declared.
Everyone who attended the session had to make a significant effort to leave court on time, make extra arrangements for children, complex travel plans and generally do effortful juggling. Returning to Manchester I felt smug that I’d travelled the furthest. However, within days I received Linkedin messages and pictures of Christina looking elegant with smiling groups of enthusiastic, smart, beautiful lawyers all over the world. With women in leadership in law she has chaired over 150 roundtable sessions and met with over 3,000 mainly-but-not-exclusively women lawyers!
Women in leadership in law is truly a global phenomenon and Christina is serious about changing the legal world. Whilst we in the UK currently seem stuck in a legal and constitutional crisis and the content of the media frequently reports the damage wreaked by global failures of the rule of law and lack of regulation, the woman in leadership in law project is busy forging national and international links, engaging with problems and looking for solutions. Lady Justice is evolving from a symbolic ideal, glad to get off the pedestal, put on the judicial marigolds and set to work. There’s plenty that needs doing.