Women in law: How to manage the crucial first stage of your career

Women in law - The critical career factors

When I talk to young women in their twenties, one of the most striking characteristics that comes across is the extent to which they are confident about their future careers.

There’s an unshakable belief they can progress and achieve their goals and they don’t see any difference between themselves and their male peers.

A place for talented women

For talented young females, a career in law is an attractive place to make their mark.

Their superior academic performance through to degree level compared to their male peers means their intellectual skills are in high demand.

The increasing number of law firms who are now putting in proactive measures to support women at different points of the career is changing perceptions about how seriously they take the need to bring more women up to partner level.

Compared to other sectors, the profession looks like a place where women can carve out a career for the long term.

The importance of exploring

But for all its attraction, one lesson that these young women can learn is the importance of going into their first job with their eyes wide open about how the choices they make in this first stage of their career will have an impact later on.

The challenge for women is to understand the importance not just of exploiting the career opportunity put in front of them by working hard for promotion, but of exploring whether that opportunity offers the things that really matter to them so their career is a sustainable one.

A long-term perspective

The most important factor in this will be working in a firm which will act as a launch pad and support them in the early stages of building their career.

While culture matters a great deal, women should also be looking practically at the development they can get in building skills beyond the day job; one where the firm is investing in the person and the career not just paying a pair of hands to do the job which can be easily replaced.

Finding a subject matter area and clients that you care about is important too. That’s because although in the short term a move into a less inspiring area may seem like a way to fast-track progression, the chances are that in the long term it will never be enough to hold your interest in your career – particularly when it comes to dividing attention between career and family.

Those women we have coached who have perhaps had the most success is where they have identified a niche area which only they are able to fill. This might be a particular area of law that they are one of the only specialists in, or a significant client relationship where they take the lead, thereby making themselves indispensable.

A third area is for young women to keep a perspective on whether achieving partnership is indeed what they are ultimately looking for from their career. When they look up are they seeing the role models that allow them to believe it is possible for them to achieve their aspirations?

I commonly have conversations with the women I coach about how they feel when they reach the stage in their career when they start “the road to partnership” and, around about the same time, potentially start to consider having a family. They might be choosing a tough but achievable path to follow that they consciously need to want, rather than just see it as the next rung up the ladder.

Sometimes there is at this point a broader realisation that, in the long run, the rewards and prospect of promotion aren’t as important as they seemed when they started out. The key then is for organisations to still harness their talent and skills in creating a working environment which is conducive to the balance they seek, while allowing them to continue to contribute their experience and knowledge to the firm.

A question of balance

There is no doubt that the prospects for women in law are brighter than they have ever been and nothing should stop talented young females from choosing the profession.

My advice would be that they need to consciously choose to be part of it as their career develops and not be so caught up in performing their roles that they don’t look up enough to see where they are going and check whether career still fulfils what they want from life.

Emma Spitz is a career coach at the Executive Coaching Consultancy. She has over twelve years experience advising City law firms and coaching female lawyers on their career development.

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