International Women’s Day – Wards’ Managing partner, Jenny Pierce, reflects on a complicated workplace landscape
Last week’s International Women’s Day brought into sharp focus the issues around gender equality at work - but here at Wards Solicitors, we recognise, promote and celebrate the excellence of our outstanding women lawyers every day.
Although women have been allowed to practice as solicitors for more than a century – with more women than men now choosing it as a profession – in terms of career progression to partner level and senior management, it has remained largely a man’s world.
However, this is far from the case at Wards. An impressive 23 out of 37 of our partners are women – that’s 62% compared to just 35% of women solicitors who make partner nationally. Overall, more than 75% of our workforce is female.
Equally impressive, our managing partner, Jenny Pierce, head of Wills, Probate and Mental Capacity, leads a senior management team that is largely made up of women.
Here she looks back on some of the difficulties she encountered when she started out as a solicitor and explains what makes Wards Solicitors so different.
What challenges did you face as a woman lawyer at the start of your career?
“When I first began in the law in the mid to late 1980s, working in London, I found being taken seriously extremely challenging.
“I had my bottom pinched on several occasions, had to listen to sexist jokes and once found myself standing on the senior partner's desk changing his lightbulb as he looked up my skirt.
“It seems shocking today that women were supposed to put up with this – being paid less than men, being objectified by male lawyers who held the power in a professional relationship and being expected to say nothing.
“The legal profession then was rife with sexism. Many men got away with it due to misplaced respect for their age and seniority. Sadly, that still happens today.
“As a feminist, I always called out any sexist behaviour and I still do.”
How did you find Wards different when you joined the firm?
“I have never encountered any such overt sexism at Wards or, to be fair, since the early 1990s.
“The culture at Wards when I joined in 1999 was very inclusive. Key appointments were being made at that time with more women than men being recruited.
“I think everyone who works here would agree that the gender balance within the organisation is a very positive thing. It’s important to say though, that any legal role at Wards is always earned on merit.
“Gender has not, and never should be, a factor when anyone joins the firm. Everyone here is appointed and promoted on merit including men, women and transgender individuals.”
What makes Wards Solicitors so different to other law firms when it comes to career progression for women?
“It is shocking that with so many more women than men entering the profession, there is this stark imbalance nationally. I would hope this comes down to choice of individuals rather than any sort of bias against women’s ambitions to achieve senior roles.
“We’ve always had a level playing field at Wards where a person is judged on their ability to succeed in the role rather than their gender.
“I am proud that so many of our partners are women and that the senior management team is largely made up of women with a financial investment in the business.”
Why, nationally, are so many women leaving law at the three-year post qualification stage?
“I’m sure some women try law as a career and find it’s not for them. Others may decide to have a family and take a career break.
“Wards takes a flexible approach to women returning to work after having a baby by agreeing reduced hours or the number of days worked each week.
“Key to our ethos as a firm is providing a supportive and flexible workplace and understanding the challenges that women in particular face as they strive to achieve that elusive work life balance – everything from having children to the menopause.”
With perceptions of women often seen as a stumbling block to promotion, what do women partners and senior manager bring to the role?
“Women bring a depth of legal knowledge and experience to senior roles, quite possibly because – back in the day – they had to work harder than men to get ahead in their career. This pays off over the long term.
“Many possess expert soft skills and emotional intelligence and are excellent multi taskers. I am generalising of course, but I think it’s true to say that men and women think differently. The combination of ideas and drive this bring to any organisation is invaluable.
“I can honestly say that in my 20-plus years working at Wards, being female has never hindered my career. Equally, I would hope that there was never positive discrimination in my favour because I am a woman.”
Just some of our standout women
In the most recent Legal 500 independent legal guide, some of our highly experienced women legal professionals were recognised and recommended for the excellence of their work.
Managing Partner Jenny Pierce, Head of Wills, Probate and Mental Capacity
Partner Elizabeth Fry, head of Contentious Probate
Partner Alison Bradley, head of Family Law and Divorce
Partner Alison Underhill, head of Accident and Injury
Partner Lucia Mills, Cohabitation specialist
Partner Emma Kerry, Contentious Probate
Partner Louise Boustead, Family Law and Divorce
Partner Mandy McCabe, Family Law and Divorce
Partner CILEX Sylvie Feltham, Family Law and Divorce
Partner Helen Boyd, Accident and Injury
Associate Solicitor Angela Carnell, Accident and Injury