Scottish female solicitors on how they see the profession

The Law Society of Scotland panellists, from left, Emma Guthrie, Sarah Myles, Christine McLintock, Eilidh Wiseman and Laura Lilburn. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The Law Society of Scotland panellists, from left, Emma Guthrie, Sarah Myles, Christine McLintock, Eilidh Wiseman and Laura Lilburn. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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In partnership with the Law Society of Scotland

THE Law Society of Scotland is in the midst of a momentous year – after electing only one female president in more than 65 years, it has a woman as both president and vice-president. Christine McLintock, the incumbent, will be succeeded by Eilidh Wiseman in May.

McLintock, a former partner and chairman with McGrigors (latterly Pinsent Masons) and Wiseman, a former partner and board member of Dundas & Wilson, reflect on the role of women in the Scottish legal profession with three young lawyers who qualified in late 2015: Emma Guthrie (Shepherd & Wedderburn), Laura Lilburn (MacRoberts) and Sarah Myles (Turcan Connell).

What was the legal profession like for women when you came into the profession?

Christine McLintock (CM): Eilidh and I actually started our traineeships with the same firm [then called McGrigor, Donald & Moncrieff] on the same day in the same office in 1986. Those graduating with law degrees then were roughly 50:50 men and women and it has taken 30 years for the profession in Scotland to become 50:50 (see sidebar).

Did you feel any different as a woman coming into the profession?

CM: I always saw it as a challenge; there were very few senior women then, although I always assumed it was on the basis of meritocracy and if you worked hard, you would make it.

Eilidh Wiseman (EW): I was the same – I didn’t really think anything about it. There were no female partners when we joined; pretty much all senior roles were held by men in law and other professions, such as accountancy and banking. 

I think McGrigors was quite a progressive firm at that time compared to others. The partners were encouraging to high-performing women and we were in that first wave of women who worked through their child-rearing years and reached senior positions.  

Laura Lilburn (LL): Personally, I see lots of positive female role models in the profession. I’m in the employment team and three of four partners and nine out of 10 staff overall are women. It’s not an issue that I’m a woman.

Emma Guthrie (EG): There are lots of female partners at my firm too – although my trainee intake was four females and eight males.

The firm is very open to young women who want to work hard and progress their careers, but I am aware that in the law, the number of women coming in is not yet represented at higher levels.

Sarah Myles (SM): My intake (and the one above and below) all had significantly more women, but there are still many more male than female partners. But you can see the change taking place with more women coming through and making it to the top.

CM: There has always been a big issue of haemorrhaging female legal talent when women are in their early 30s. It’s not just about having a family; a lot of really good talented women anticipate having a family and cannot see themselves balancing that with they career.

It is doable – Eilidh and I and many others did it – but there is work to do in terms of firms addressing more flexible working.

EW: Christine and I had tremendously supportive managing partners. I remember going to see Chris Campbell (at Dundas & Wilson) on a bank holiday and saying “I can’t do this job any more”. I was putting the kids to bed and working until 2 or 3am.

He said: “Just tell me what you think you can do”. I said I just wanted a few hours a couple of afternoons a week to collect the kids from school, take them swimming etc. He said that was fine and told me to remember my career was a marathon, not a sprint.

What we see happening is a lot of women moving to in-house roles because law firms’ clients are accepting the need for greater flexibility while generally speaking, legal firms providing services to those clients are not yet doing that. The challenge is how to retain women in private practice.

CM: I tried to resign at one point. I was in banking law and there were late nights and all-nighters and I hit the wall; I couldn’t do both things (career and family) to the standard I wanted. My managing partner [Niall Scott at McGrigors] told me to have a break and come back and talk about it. 

EW: These men were real visionaries and we need men and women like that leading our firms, senior role models who will effect change.

LL: I have done things backwards and already have a four-year-old son, who I had two weeks into my diploma. I took ten days off and came back and finished the diploma. I deferred my traineeship for a year and started when Rory turned two.

I work closely with MacRoberts’ managing partner John Macmillan and he has been very understanding in terms of flexibility. I cannot stay until 10pm every day, but I can leave at 5pm and work from home later.

EG: I think flexibility is key to getting women to stay in the law for longer – and more men working flexibly too. There has to be an ethos through the whole firm.

SM: The type of work I’m doing is less transactional so I’m less likely to need to stay around all night, though there are times when a client with no family dies and you have to work through.

I didn’t realise so many women were leaving the profession at the age when they are having, or thinking about having, a family.

EW: I think there has to be a bit more honesty about the subject. I led an employment team of virtually all women, most of whom had different flexible working arrangements.

Across the firm at the time, there were more than 100 different flexible working patterns. But there is still a culture that firms don’t want clients to know staff are working part-time.

In my view, there is an issue with chargeable hours still being at the heart of the law firm business model. If you are in a leadership role, you won’t be delivering 1,400 chargeable hours annually.

You are out seeing people, developing new work, researching new ideas, doing PR, passing work onto others. We need to see more value placed on leadership, management and strategy.

CM: I think we are seeing a cultural change in the attitudes of men in the law. The society has done a survey for 15 years and for the first time, we see a majority of men say they perceived the childcare role to be a shared responsibility.

Given the progress you see, why does the salary gap seem to persist in the law more than other professions?

EW: I’m quite bamboozled by this. When you work part-time, you are paid pro rata of the full time equivalent – I don’t recall an instance where this wasn’t the case. I just don’t understand why there is such a gap – I don’t see it. Certainly not on a like-for-like basis.

CM: It’s all about what people want; they might be happy with their work-life balance because that’s what works for them. That’s where mentoring and support kicks in – if that is right, it can encourage women to push forward. I also think when promotions come up, women can be more self-effacing and worry about not having the full range of skills, while men are more likely to say “I can do all that”.

What made you come into the law, what are your ambitions and do you feel limited at all by being female?

EG: I was attracted by the fast pace and wide networks and I’d say my ambitions are limitless. But there is a slight, niggling concern that in ten years, I might get to a point where I want to have kids and what happens then. Will the future be as open as I’d like?

SM: I would agree. I love the challenge and variety of the work but I also feel that sense that if you do want a family, you might not be able to progress at the same rate because of maternity leave and maybe returning to work part-time. If I wanted to become a partner, it might not be so easy.

CM: That has to change – and it will change because of the demographics; 63 per cent of lawyers under 40 are women.

EW: I just thought: “Why wouldn’t I be a partner or head of department?”. I just kept going.

LL: I don’t share Emma and Sarah’s views because I have done it. And I’m really keen to say to women that you can do it.

There are times I have been very tired going into work after looking after a crying toddler all night – but I think being a full-time working mum is absolutely achievable and women have to support women in the profession and tell them they can achieve their ambitions.

I’d like to have a board position, maybe be managing partner and possibly be an employment judge.

It has to go back to education; girls need to be told they can do it and that the sky’s the limit.

Things are getting easier in terms of childcare and more flexible arrangements, and grandparents’ leave could be a really big positive.

Is it important that the Law Society of Scotland has a female president and vice-president this year?

CM: It’s been a huge privilege and great fun – though hard work with lots of long hours.

EW: It’s a privilege to have that overview of the whole profession, from access to justice and legal aid to political discussions.

It’s a fabulous end to your career – and yes, it is important for the profession to see women in positions like this; more senior female role models are definitely needed.

LEGAL CHALLENGE

Statistics released by the Law Society of Scotland in December 2015 showed that for the first time, a majority of Scotland’s 11,000-plus practising solicitors are female (51 per cent)

There are marginal differences between Scotland’s big cities, with 53 per cent of Dundee and Edinburgh solicitors being female, compared to Glasgow (52 per cent), Aberdeen (51 per cent) and Inverness (48 per cent).

The society’s figures also show:

60 per cent of in-house solicitors working in the public and private sectors are female compared to 47 per cent of solicitors working in private practice

64 per cent of solicitors under the age of 40 are female, compared to 40 per cent for solicitors over 40

Of the solicitors being admitted to the profession in 2015, 64 per cent were female.

This article appears in the Spring 2016 edition of Vision Scotland. An online version can be read here. Further information about Vision Scotland here.