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A (Wo)Man’s World

I decided to embark on a legal career at the tender age of 16 when I started my A-Levels at college. What I was blissfully ignorant of was that as an ethnic minority state-educated female, the odds were stacked against me even before I had started my journey. But despite this, I got into a good university, I got a training contract and I qualified as a solicitor 10 years ago.

My peers and friends at university were from very similar background – females from non-white families. As such I was never really exposed to the much talked of discrimination permeating the world of would-be lawyers. I did not feel like I was a minority or that I was at a disadvantage. We worked hard and reaped the rewards regardless of gender or race.

The same experience ensued when I applied for training contracts and eventually secured one with a small high street firm in Camden. I never felt differently to my white male colleagues, who were strangely the minority species at the firm where women ruled (literally as the senior partner was a woman). Both myself and the other female trainee of my year secured jobs at the firm after the obligatory two year training contract; her in family and myself in housing. In fact, getting a male employee was rather a novelty and stirred much excitement at the firm. When I looked around and beyond; my clients, my colleagues, and my peers were all diverse in gender and race.

This phenomenon continued when I changed employers at 18 months post qualification and went to work for a larger firm. Currently we have 217 employees broken down as follows:

Males – 63
Females – 154
White – 110
Non White – 107

Of the 10 members, we are strangely very balanced – only 5 are male and 5 are Caucasian

I consider myself fortunate in never having had the pleasure of meeting the ‘glass ceiling’ where I have worked. I joined Hodge Jones and Allen in 2007, they made me associate in 2010, a partner in 2014 and then member in 2015. In between that I got married in 2008, had my first child in 2012 and due to have my second later this year (2016). I felt proud of the fact that my achievements were based on merit and not because the firm had any quota to fill. I never felt inhibited in my ability to achieve my potential based on the fact that I am a Chinese woman.

I know that my own experience does not accord with what is happening on the wider and higher spectrum of the legal world.

Our own report, Innovation in Law (2014) produced findings still showing that:

  • 74% of legal professionals agrees that ‘senior positions throughout the legal professional are dominated by white, public-school educated men’.
  • Only 12% agreed that ‘it was easy to combine being a mother and developing a career in the legal profession’.
  • Over 70% of legal professional believe that women, the state-educated, ethnic minorities and those with disabilities are under-represented, more among barristers than solicitors and overwhelmingly so in the judiciary.

The Law Society found that women’s salaries were on average 30% lower across all areas of private practice in 2013. Taken in context, this gap is bigger than the average of 19.1% in the wider labour market. This is despite equal pay being a legal requirement under the Equality Act 2010. The Law Society has also published a practice note on equal pay.

In April 2015, the Law Society published its latest Annual Statistics Report for 2014 which showed that although ethnic minority solicitors only represented 15% of the field, this had been slowly but surely doubling since 2000.

It may well be that I have been extremely lucky in my short legal career to date. But I think much of my success is also owed to the type of law and type of firm that I have chosen to practise in. If I was working in a magic circle firm in a more commercial field, then I would certainly be on the back foot to my male white counterparts.

The law gazette has reported on regulations which will see mandatory reporting requirements to tackle gender pay gaps and provide more transparency.

There has been all sorts of calls to provide better support for candidates from less privileged backgrounds to enable better access to a career in law, which must be a step in the right direction.

I do not personally think that introduction of quotas is good idea for the individual or the firms as it does not tackle the underlying issues. A person should not be defined by their gender or race and that cuts both ways – if you did not get in because of gender or race; you should not get in for gender or race. Whilst I have no doubt the hurdles and barriers to women of ethnic minority are very real, they are not insurmountable; from experience women do and can make it in what was traditionally a man’s world.