International Women’s Day: Women in the Workplace – a Partner’s Perspective

Kirsten Toft, Lauren Waterman and Gemma Wilson of Virtuoso Legal. International Women's Day.
Kirsten Toft, Lauren Waterman and Gemma Wilson of Virtuoso Legal

As a fast-paced professional industry, the legal sector presents a unique set of challenges to female practitioners.

Whether it’s the competing demands of a heavy workload and young children or dealing with the traditionalist views still present in a historically male-dominated field, the life of a female lawyer can be a hectic one.

International Women’s Day offers an opportunity to take a closer look at the progress made, and progress still to come.

In this interview, Virtuoso Legal trainee solicitor Gemma Wilson speaks with her supervising partner, Vice-Principal Kirsten Toft, about her career, its challenges and its rewards.

You qualified as a solicitor in 1999. Did you face any challenges as a woman entering the legal profession?

The main difference was that there weren’t as many women and there certainly weren’t many women partners. I worked for a female partner when I first qualified and it was very much the exception rather than the norm. Happily, that is no longer the case.

At my first firm a female senior associate was promoted to partnership. Unfortunately, she did not stay in the position for very long. I saw her try to juggle her role as a partner with her childcare responsibilities and it seemed a very difficult position to be in. The landscape at the time was certainly not accommodating or flexible for women who wanted to have families.

There was an expectation that females in senior positions had to do more than their male counterparts to be valued within their firms and within the profession. There weren’t many female role models that I could look up to when I first entered the profession and it certainly wasn’t a positive outlook for a junior female solicitor who also wanted to have a family.  

Do you think that things have changed for women in the legal profession over the past 20 years, and if so, how?

There are far more women in the legal profession now than when I first started. The latest Law Society statistics showed that women now hold 50.1% of the UK’s 139,624 practicing certificates. This is an enormous increase from what was a male-dominated industry only two decades ago.

There has also been a great change in relation to flexible working. The legal profession has had to catch up with other industries in departing from the ‘9 to 5, at your desk’ model. Part time positions and remote working are now seen as a possibility, which twenty years ago would have been unheard of. There is now a recognition that it is not about the hours you work but how well you work in those hours.

As well as being a qualified solicitor in the UK, you were admitted as a lawyer of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, Australia in April 2006. What made you take the jump to moving to Australia and do you have any advice for young lawyers who may be interested in working abroad?

I fell in love with Australia when I went backpacking before I started my training contract. I stayed there for a full year before returning to the UK. As soon as I was qualified in the UK I did my research and found that it was possible to emigrate, become a resident and practice as a solicitor in Australia.

Even then, it took me five years to make the leap. The more I practiced in the UK and built up my client base, the more difficult it became to leave. In 2005 I finally emigrated, as I knew I would regret it if I didn’t. I had to take several exams, but I put the work in, got qualified and managed to land a job with leading IP firm, Spruson & Ferguson.

My advice to any young lawyers interested in working abroad is that it is very hard to find time to make these jumps once you are established in your career. I personally believe that you should take every opportunity to travel and broaden your horizons and that these opportunities are more frequent in the earlier stages of your career path.  

Over the past 20 years you have risen to the top of your profession and are now considered a leader in your field. How did you achieve this success and is there anything that you would do differently?

Hard work, perseverance, a healthy amount of perspective and a sense of humour. On my return to the UK from Australia I considered pursuing another career. However, I realised that what I wanted was to be in a different type of law firm. I wasn’t interested in the corporate culture of most large firms and I knew that I was attracted by the freedom of a different type of environment.

I joined Virtuoso Legal’s all-female team (at the time!) and worked incredibly hard. We weren’t an all-female team by design but by chance and as we grew, we became more diverse. We have retained the culture of being a non-traditional, values-based law firm and this is something that has worked incredibly well for us.

I pride myself on striving for the best result for my clients and always putting their commercial needs first. At the forefront of any solicitor’s mind should be working in the client’s best interests. I think that is what has kept my loyal clients coming back to me time and again.

In terms of anything I would do differently – I would have spent less time in a large City firm. There was a presumption that any job in the law was a ‘good job’. This is simply not the case. A ‘good job’ in the law is the job that is right for you and I could have explored my options and looked at travelling earlier in my career.

As one of the firm’s directors and head of the non-contentious team, how do you balance the responsibility of managing a team, fee earning and raising a young family?

With difficulty! This is a rewarding but never an easy job and getting the balance right between being a good mother and a good lawyer is a continuous challenge.

There has been much talk of work-life balance over recent years and it continues to be a significant issue faced by women in the legal profession. I manage to balance work and spending quality time with my two children by being organised, available to my clients when they need me and going above and beyond when putting in time for the firm.

The downside of this is that I struggle to find time for myself and I would advise anybody entering the profession of the importance of making time for yourself.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is Balance for Better. Is there anything the legal sector can do to ensure more gender balance?

I think we are going in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go. The most recent statistics from the SRA show that women make up only 33% of partners and this drops down in larger firms with 50 plus partners to just 29%.

Flexibility is key and the option for part-time working for mothers without any negative connotations is vital. Society’s perception of working women has been slow to change and I have found that there is still judgment attached to a mother’s choice to go out to work, be it part-time or full-time. Attitudes need to change and the only way to change them is by getting more women in these senior positions.

What is the best piece of advice that you could give to women pursuing a career in the legal profession?

Attitude is key. To be successful in this profession you need to be conscientious about your work and take pride in what you do. Ultimately your work will speak for itself and it reflects upon you. Taking your time and being diligent will reap its own rewards. 

Thank You, Kirsten.

Thanks, Gemma.

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