Issues surrounding career progression, the ‘equity gap’ and work/life balance were discussed during an informal female advocates’ business (FAB) lunch at the Isle of Man Law Society. FAB lunches are being regularly held to promote diversity at the Manx Bar, the composition of which has changed dramatically in recent years.
Hosting the lunch was the Society’s chief executive Jane O’Rourke who was joined by Kathryn Clough and Laura Monk (Callin Wild); Helen Gough (Gough Law); Sally Bolton, Nicky Merritt and Penny Rogerson (Corlett Bolton); Irini Newby (Simcocks) and Liz Parkes (Gelling Johnson Farrant). Also at the lunch was trainee advocate Georgina Li on work placement with the Society. The second-year Edinburgh University law student said she was motivated to become an advocate, ‘because the law is the basis of how society functions.’
While the Manx Bar is changing, albeit slowly, and women now make up approx 43 per cent of the profession, there is still a tendency to speak in terms of female ‘firsts’. Clare Faulds was the ‘first’ woman to be admitted to the Manx Bar in 1973, Dr Sharon Roberts the ‘first’ female Deemster and the ‘first’ female President of the Isle of Man Law Society, appointed in 2007, while Jayne Hughes became the ‘first’ female Deputy High Bailiff in 2011.
Jane O’Rourke observed: ‘It’s become a profession where young women properly have every expectation that they will succeed in the same measure as their male counterparts. Previous perceptions were that the Bar was not particularly inclusive but we have seen a strong emergence of women in the legal profession in the Isle of Man.’
Helen Gough said: ‘When I qualified 13 years ago there were very few female advocates but that’s no longer the case.’
Kathryn Clough commented that she felt this to be particularly interesting given that this has been achieved without the imposition of positive discrimination or minimum quota policies. ‘It’s been a natural evolution,’ she said.
Although the words ‘glass ceiling’ were not mentioned, Irini Newby spoke for all those present when she said: ‘You see in law firms how there’s roughly a 50-50 male-female split until you look at the top, where there tend to be far fewer women at partner level.’ Female partner under-representation was caused in the main, she felt, ‘because many women feel they have to make a work-life choice. It’s a management challenge and a difficult choice, but that diversity, having women and men on the board, brings an important balance to a firm.’
Greater diversity at partner level could help shape practice culture. Women have been recognised in other sectors as being particularly skilful at cultivating and, importantly, sustaining long-term client relationships, observed Jane O’Rourke. ‘And women have an aptitude for seeing the bigger the picture,’ added Irini Newby. ‘Simply put,’ said Kathryn Clough, ‘Men and women bring different skills to a practice. Both are valuable and it’s the combination which benefits the client.’
‘And it’s important that clients find the right lawyer – male or female – to whom they can relate best,’ said Jane O’Rourke.
It’s never too late for women to take up a career in law. Former teacher Nicky Merritt qualified as an advocate in 2011 and, as her colleague Sally Bolton (a former librarian) observed: ‘I would always recommend anyone considering the law to get a background in another discipline first.’
‘At Simcocks, none of our trainees have had previous legal experience; I believe that brings an added dimension to the practice,’ agreed Irini Newby.
Sally Bolton summed up the mood around the table: ‘In the past I think many of us felt that in the legal profession you had “to do it better” simply because you were a woman. Things are changing, more women are entering the profession and we’re witnessing a welcome shift in the culture. Watch this space.’