Women in the legal profession: use your networks and don't be afraid to be direct
By Nicola Laver
Networking is no longer men-only territory as efforts have recently been made to redress the balance in favour of women, says Dana Denis-Smith
Rainmakers in the legal professional have always been adept at using their networks to bring in work.
Men have long benefitted from contacts made at school and university, with city firms and financial institutions dominated by private school and Oxbridge alumni – who are more likely to hire each other and give them work.
With a history of networking and client hospitality events held at men-only private members’ clubs, golf days and other activities traditionally precluding women, this has added to the obstacles holding women back in the legal profession over the years.
More recently, efforts have been made to redress the balance. Numerous women’s groups and networking events have sprung up; and law firms are more sensitive to the importance of organising more inclusive client marketing events – especially given the growing number of women working in-house.
The scandal over the treatment of women working at the Presidents Club Dinner last year was a wake-up call for anyone still under the impression that men-only events of this kind are an acceptable part of the modern-day business world.
Money laundering regulations have also made clients more wary of accepting lavish hospitality.
Despite this cultural shift, women are still being left behind when it comes to the benefits of networking.
Many attend women-only events but, in my experience, while these can be great for support, camaraderie and building relationships, there is not always a great deal of business development happening.
Women are happy to talk to each other, sharing stories, experiences and advice; but they can be reluctant to talk directly about wanting your business.
I want to see women unafraid to ask for meetings or to talk about how they want to grow their client base.
Men being direct about their business development focus is perceived as being totally acceptable.
Notoriously, lawyers of both genders are reluctant networkers; but being clear about your objectives is something men are generally more comfortable with.
I also find that women are worried about being seen to favour other women when it comes to allocating work.
They go to great lengths to demonstrate they have chosen fairly, whereas men are happy to give work to their friends and acquaintances. They are less worried about being impartial – and it is women who are losing out.
Women need to be unafraid of using their networks; less self-conscious about what they are seeking to achieve.
Putting time and effort into networking is invaluable – whether it’s attending a conference and identifying contacts you would like to meet, or arranging hospitality at events like Wimbledon, World Series Cricket or the Chelsea Flower Show.
You don’t have to be a big fan to enjoy these events and to use them to build relationships with clients and potential clients.
There are spaces that are still not open to women, but this is less common than it once was and there are great experience-focused options for hospitality if you get creative.
Never waste an opportunity to ask someone for their business; and before you go to an event, think about what you are there to achieve. If you’re there to make contacts and grow your client base, don’t waste the opportunity.
I would also like to see women be more generous with each other: push forward female colleagues, endorse those from whom you have seen great things.
Let’s not be shy about asking each other the right questions and helping each other to succeed.
Dana Denis-Smith is founder of The First 100 Years project