Letter from London

In Letter from London, we get perspectives from barristers and solicitors about legal life in the UK.

In pursuit of excellence

Oct 17, 2016, By Kelly Hagedorn

It is often said that London is one of the most competitive legal marketplaces in the world. There are hundreds of firms, ranging from the magic circle to smaller, single office firms.  A large number of U.S. headquartered firms, including the one I work for, are here. To be a truly international firm, it is almost a prerequisite to have a London office.

What this means, of course, is that clients have a huge range of firms to choose from in London.  Across the entire spectrum of firms, there are many differentiators: cost, experience, specialism, available fee structures. When it comes to the international firms, those differentiators narrow. So, how do these firms distinguish themselves and win business from the biggest clients with the biggest matters?

It seems to me that one of the answers, and one of the most important at that, is to have truly excellent lawyers. Excellent academically, excellent client skills, excellent management skills.  Excellence comes in all sorts of packages. Law firms can no longer afford to overlook talented people that don’t look the same as those who currently occupy positions of power.

But it is not just firms competing with each other. Competition on an individual level is also immense. The increasingly international nature of the profession means that the pool of people increases by day; that is great for increasing diversity, but it makes the struggle for individual progression even harder. The caliber of people applying to join the profession is extraordinary.  Most candidates are extremely well-educated, multi-lingual and multi-faceted in their lives outside of work. And, as noted recently in The WILEF Tribune, 60 percent of new entrants into the UK legal market are female.

I assume that at the entry level, the brightest and the best are taken on – and the majority of those are women. How can it then be that at the partner promotion level, where again I assume that management are looking for the brightest and the best, those chosen are overwhelmingly male? It cannot be that women, who constitute the majority at the entry level to the profession, cease to be excellent at precisely the time when they are looking to take the next big step in their career. Firms must do more to hang on to those excellent lawyers.

In my experience, everyone—regardless of gender—has to work extremely hard to make it to partnership in today’s market. Seeking promotion is a massive undertaking involving juggling both the demands of meeting billable hours targets, managing client and partner needs and generally keeping the show on the road, whilst at the same time attending events, writing articles (like this!) to raise your profile, developing relationships with existing and potential clients and writing business plans. You need to be a technically excellent lawyer, a project manager, a supervisor and good listener for your clients.

Fortunately, while trying my best to pull all of these rabbits out of hats, I can honestly say I have never experienced sexism. I have never once felt that I was disadvantaged in my pursuit of career advancement by being female. I know that this is not a universal experience, and I should confess that I do not have children or other dependents in my life as a number of my colleagues do. So perhaps it is relatively easy to dispense my standard advice to more junior colleagues that they should “be better than the boys,” and then there can be no excuses for not promoting them.

Leaving that (admittedly, rather large) caveat to one side, I do feel that the days of women not succeeding because they are women are—in the main—behind us. I am fortunate in that I really can see this in my firm.  Jenner & Block is committed to excellence, and together with client service, that trumps all other considerations. I was one of the first English lawyers to work in our London office. The launch of the office has been measured, but deliberately so, as part of a strategy of attracting the right people. Those people come in all shapes and sizes, and I have always been impressed by the way that the firm leadership steadfastly refuses to lower its standards in any way when looking to recruit and promote people.

That commitment to excellence also means that Jenner & Block supports a fantastic diversity programme, and has always been very supportive of its female associates’ career aspirations.  Likewise with the other firms that I have worked for over the years. I have genuinely found that the people who are really supportive of these initiatives, and of me and my female colleagues and our ambitions to progress, are the senior male partners.

It is often the case that women’s initiatives and women’s groups are headed by prominent women in the firm. Having these successful women as role models is, and always will be, vital. But perhaps now is the time also to encourage the men—most of whom in my experience do want equality at all levels of the profession—to get involved with these initiatives and groups, and to increase the focus on ensuring that firms hold on to their excellent lawyers right the way through their careers.

Kelly Hagedorn is special counsel with Jenner & Block.