Encouraging women to find new ways to lead in law

Article written by Niki Malherbe in Bizcommunity Online Publication

Convened by the UCT Law @ work Professional Development Project and the Centre for Integrative Law, the recent summit entitled, ‘Finding New Ways for Women to Lead in Law’, evidenced that the old traditional way of practicing law is undergoing an exciting transformation.

Companies with names such as Whipping the Cat and Cognia Law were among the sponsors at the event, which was attended by more than 100 women delegates.

The concept of new law is undoubtedly gaining momentum, as young lawyers take up the challenge to find new ways of leading in law. Along with a noticeably greater number of women lawyers entering the profession, there appears to be a simultaneous emergence of a more conscious, more purposeful approach to spending a life in law, which underpins the new young lawyer.

The summit was initiated and conceptualised by Amanda Lamond, Director of the Centre for Integrative Law, who noted the increase of women in the legal profession, and raised the question of whether the legal profession would be transformed by the women who practice law.

In an emotional sharing of inspiring stories of the various journeys of women in their legal careers, from high-powered professionals and practicing lawyers to academics, and consulting entrepreneurs, it was apparent that the personal sacrifices for women who have achieved in the legal world required a delicate balance of the head and the heart.

Though enormous strides were being made in law firms and the statistics revealed high percentages of women in practice, there appeared to be an issue of retention.

Of course, changed personal circumstances were often cited as the major cause of this issue – women being the primary caregivers in the family – though some felt that it was possible that both professional and personal life could be satisfactorily combined.

Personal stories

The stories that unfolded were brave, honest and revealing. For some though, practice had left them with an uncomfortable, unsatisfied feeling that somehow they had not yet achieved what they had set out to do: that what they had initially envisaged about where their knowledge of law could help to bring justice and equity had culminated in a battlefield of insensitive and uncompromising commercial dealings, where there was often no sense of fairness, no sense of what was morally correct and little personal satisfaction. For others, the summit was an awakening in a sense – an awakening of being allowed to do things differently, of being given permission to explore new ways of bringing law to the world.

Common to all however, was a sense of passion and commitment and desire to change. To start new conversations. Through personal sacrifice and the drive to succeed, breaking new barriers and forging new paths, some things were bound to be neglected. Though achievements were revered and inspiring, a certain shared emotion was felt when vulnerabilities were allowed to be shown, masks withdrawn.

One of the important themes to emerge was that the newer recruits needed strong role models to show them the way and that the current curriculum of legal study did not fully equip them for the essential business model of practicing law. Charging hourly-based fees required that they spend long hours trying to justify a successful promotion and that this often came at the expense of their personal satisfaction.

Alternative law model

It was interesting to learn that for one of the sponsors of the summit, Whipping the Cat, the traditional practice of law is already something of the past. The firm with the unusual name and a lovely story of its own about how it came about (deriving from the name given to master tailors who set up bespoke services to clients in contrast to the high-end Savile Row tailors from whom they had learned their skills) seems to have embraced this transformation already. Whipping the Cat understands that indeterminate hours of billing time is of no real value to clients and puts unnecessary pressure on practitioners to climb up an old hierarchical ladder. Whipping the Cat falls into a growing number of alternatives to the traditional law firms, where flexible working arrangements is a given and where client satisfaction is the measure of success. This will certainly appeal to women who are trying to become leaders in law while still raising their families and having a life beyond law.

Speaking to the CEO, it was interesting to learn that the firm was one of the finalists in the innovation category in the 2013 and 2014 African Legal Awards, and this year a finalist in the Small Practice of the Year category. Encouraging testimony that alternative legal services providers are gaining recognition in the market.

After some breakaway groups in the afternoon which focused on questions such as ‘Changing Direction in Law’ and revealed further ways of embracing changes in the lives of women lawyers, the day ended with a mindfulness practice and a questionnaire based upon Dr John F Demartini’s book ‘Inspired Destiny’ – a fitting end to an emotionally exhausting yet uplifting day.

The term new law and the striving for the attainment of work/life balance seems to be a part of a global trend and one which is starting to make inroads into the current practices of law in South Africa.