A Q&A with Suzanne Szczetnikowicz, co-founder and current chair of the Women in Law London network

In an exclusive interview with Who’s Who Legal, co-founder and current chair of the WILL network, Suzanne Szczetnikowicz discusses the driving forces behind its establishment, the importance of such initiatives, many of the challenges that women in the industry are facing today and possible solutions. 

Suzanne S

Name: Suzanne Szczetnikowicz

Role: Senior associate at Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy and co-founder and current chair of the WILL network

 “As a network we want to be a driver of change and a means by which future generations of women are better able to achieve their ambitions”

“Promoting and engaging the next generation of women leaders in law” – this is the objective of the Women in Law in London (WILL) network, the city’s first legal network for pre-partnership level women solicitors, both in-house and private practice. 

What was the impetus for launching the WILL network?

Suzanne Szczetnikowicz: The impetus was the lack of professional networks in the City for pre-partnership and general counsel-level qualified female solicitors. Whilst there are a number of senior executive-level networks in the City for those who have already reached the top of the profession, there was no independent forum for women embarking on their careers to network, exchange ideas, access information about career progression independently of their own organisations, and hear from those who have successfully walked the path before them.

Five associates from across a number of City firms back in 2014 decided to create a grassroots network led by the then chair, Sascha Grimm, to fill this gap with a networking opportunity that would bring a rounded perspective on the profession as a whole and prospects within it. We officially launched in the autumn of that year with Dame Fiona Woolf, the second female Lord Mayor of London in over 800 years and a trailblazing energy lawyer with CMS Cameron McKenna, providing the keynote speech.

Having originally envisaged a small group of around 70 people joining us, we received over 700 responses to our invitation to the event that was generously co-sponsored by the various law firms of the original WILL Committee. This was when we realised the potential value we were creating for the legal profession in London. In just under three years, the WILL network has now accumulated around 2,500 members, and partner and GC “champions” from over 360 different firms and businesses across London.

The network organises a number of events including workshops, seminars and keynote speakers. How do you go about selecting the key topics of discussion?

Suzanne Szczetnikowicz: The ideas for panel discussions or keynote speeches come either from the WILL Committee, the WILL advisory panel or the organisations that sponsor the relevant events, alongside suggestions for proposed presenters. WILL is a network independent from law firms, businesses and institutions and we do not request subscription fees from our members. As a result, we are reliant on that external sponsorship for our events. When we co-host speakers, the topic often follows from the relevant speaker, their current work focus and their career to date. We have heard from Shami Chakrabarti, Baroness Butler-Sloss, Mary McAleese, and most recently, for International Women’s Day 2017, the then Lord Chancellor, Elizabeth Truss.

We seek to provide our membership with panels representing successful practitioners across industry sectors such as Women in Technology and Women in Banking. As part of our WILLpower series, non-practice area specific topics can be used as tools for career development such as CV training or our session entitled “Law doesn’t have to be Linear”, which highlighted the varied paths a qualified solicitor can take beyond private practice, including through appointment to the judiciary. Most recently, together with Hogan Lovells’ StepUp programme, we co-hosted a discussion on the importance of mentoring and sponsorship to career progression. Finally, our WILLconnect series brings together representatives of women’s networks at law firms and in businesses to discuss how organisations are addressing specific topics affecting their internal diversity. Best practices and experiences are shared together with lessons learned and, from our perspective, this is an extremely important information-sharing tool.

Why are networks such as WILL so important for young lawyers?

Suzanne Szczetnikowicz: Since the early 1990s, the statistics show that women have been going into the profession in greater numbers than men and yet this proportion is not even close to being reflected in the percentage of women who make it to equity partnership or general counsel roles. The issues, therefore, concern retention and promotion of talent rather than recruitment. Additionally, and as with other sectors, the legal profession has historically not regularly recruited women back into it once they have taken career breaks for family or other reasons.

WILL published a survey in conjunction with King’s College London’s Management School in the autumn of 2016, which analysed the feedback from our members. This study cited confidence-building as the main reason for joining the network. We have also had members seeking specific advice on how to build their own women’s networks internally and how to bring their partnerships “on side”. As well as learning from the content of each event, attendees are provided with informal networking opportunities, which encourage the development of those fundamental business skills and the building of long and short-term connections at an early juncture in members’ careers. We expect that the topics discussed and experiences shared will enable comparisons to be drawn between workplaces, together with an individual sense of purpose about making changes either independently or within organisations. Anecdotally, we have learned of members being asked to pitch for deals and winning clients through contacts they have made at WILL and also gaining the impetus to successfully launch their own networks.

As a network we want to be a driver of change and a means by which future generations of women are better able to achieve their ambitions, recognising, of course, the varying ultimate career goals, interests and capabilities of women in the profession.

The network’s main focus is on junior lawyers – how important are senior women in the profession in promoting gender diversity in the workplace, particularly in leadership roles?

Suzanne Szczetnikowicz: Our members are solicitors of varying levels of qualification with an average member age of 33 years according to the WILL survey. We also have champions who are experienced practitioners of partnership or general counsel level and a fantastic advisory panel of senior professionals.

WILL may be run by associates for associates, but without real management-level commitment to moving the needle on diversity within the profession and individual organisations (both private practice and in-house), progress and progression are limited. It is vital for young women to see more advanced women realising ambition, leading from the front and championing juniors in the profession. The “lift as you climb” concept which we first heard at our launch event is key. It is also helpful to receive practical advice about how those pioneers have managed the tricky juggling act of their own private and family lives alongside the demands of their career – something that both male and female solicitors face.

The other obvious impact of having women in leadership roles is the existence of sufficient voices in the room helping to challenge and set business agendas, policies and cultures both at an overarching profession and firm level and within individual teams. This is all before addressing the impact that female leadership can have on the economics of a business as well as national economies.

I would finally add to the above that the promotion of gender diversity in the workplace is not just achieved through senior women. Male colleagues, managers and partners also play a vital role in identifying, developing and promoting female talent. Without firm and persistent commitment to this, given the significant majority male foothold in those equity partner and GC positions, real and lasting change will not be achieved.

What trends have you been noticing over the past few years with regards to the role that women are playing in the legal profession?

Suzanne Szczetnikowicz: The huge wave of support we received following the setting up of WILL is testament to the fact that colleagues across the City felt the need for a network like ours and that women increasingly and proactively support advocating for real change. There has been significant press coverage over the past number of years relating to initiatives improving gender diversity across the professions, through the likes of the 30% Club and WeAreTheCity, as well as more specifically relating to the solicitors’ profession and the lack of diversity in the country’s judicial system. We are not, however, seeing change commensurate with either that public momentum or the percentages of women entering the profession in England and Wales.

Whilst the statistics lag, there are a number of people who determinedly advocate for change within the many facets of the legal profession. Projects such as Dana Denis-Smith’s “First 100 Years” remind us of the history of women in the profession and how far we have come, and reinforce the importance of moving the needle both for present and future generations. Advocates for change, such as Alexandra Marks from the Judicial Appointments Commission, actively pursue greater diversity in the judiciary, a cause so vital when we consider the impact judicial decisions can have on individuals, society and the development of legal systems. Wouldn’t it be great if high-profile cases like the Supreme Court Article 50 ruling last year were able to showcase to future generations a greater diversity of our judicial body than the single female Justice, Lady Brenda Hale?

A number of our own advisory panel, comprising Nicholas Cheffings (global chair of Hogan Lovells), Funke Abimbola MBE (general counsel and head of financial compliance for Roche UK), Alison Levitt QC (partner, Mishcon de Reya), Philip Goodstone (head of law for UK and Ireland, EY) and Fatema Orjela (partner, Sidley Austin LLP) volunteer significant amounts of time to internally and publicly promote the role of women in the profession.

The existence of female thought leaders who excel to the highest levels does still play an important role in instilling and reinforcing the belief that ultimate career progression is possible, recognising that the legal profession can be equally demanding of its practitioners as it is fulfilling. And, as the support we have received over the last three years has shown, there is definite will to change.

What do you think is currently the most significant barrier to female leadership in the legal profession?

Suzanne Szczetnikowicz: Our survey has shown that there are a number of ways in which the legal profession could better retain talent to the highest levels. Lack of real accountability at the management level, is one key theme that encompasses a number of these barriers. People often talk about women “opting out” of the profession when the truth is that a number of institutional factors are likely to have resulted in an individual being “opted out”.

Some examples of how management can help encourage retention and promotion include:

  • ensure that policies really do permeate culture, are available to all and have managers lead by example by adopting the relevant policies, such as shared parental leave or flexible/agile working. Flexible and agile working is also acknowledged to be of increasing importance to Generation Y of legal practitioners of both genders;
  • obtain unconscious bias training to ensure: promotion and sponsorship opportunities are not unfairly prejudicing one part of a team over another; lateral or internal recruitment to top positions is not unconsciously in the image of those who have already “made it”; and work allocation permits individuals to gain exposure to a diverse set of clients;
  • provide parental leave coaching such that women going on maternity leave and their line managers are given training prior to, during and after their return to prevent disenfranchisement of the individual from their team and stimulating fee-earning activities upon their return;
  • give employees a clear indication of their prospects within an organisation together with an expectation of the path to follow to succeed; and
  • require decision-makers to show, on an ongoing basis, genuine commitment to diversity of firm and team, which some firms implement through performance and compensation criteria.

Increasingly, we see the role of the client being discussed in the context of the impact clients can have on the outlook and internal workings of their service provider. This can go far beyond initial panel or transaction appointment procedures, with the client advocating for diverse teams of lawyers (not just from a gender perspective) to be put forward on an ongoing basis.

It seems that women are well represented at entry level, but this does not seem to translate into partner promotions and the attainment of senior roles. Why do you think this is?

Suzanne Szczetnikowicz: According to the Law Society statistics, this year should be the first year in which the numbers of women working as solicitors will overtake those of men. The numbers of women at partnership level are 33 per cent nationally (27 per cent in Magic Circle firms) and, when we consider the numbers in equity partnership positions, these languish far behind. A number of reasons exist for this, some of which have already been highlighted.

We are also regularly reminded of the often-different approaches taken by men and women to their career progression. Women may expect their hard work and productivity to simply be noticed whereas men can be more vocal about their expectations and requirements. Additionally, taking the step to management/partnership is something that requires sponsorship. At a recent WILL event, the panel advised to have at least two sponsors to corroborate performance and skillset and that numerous factors (including unconscious bias) had a role to play in the development of those sponsorship opportunities for women.

The premise of WILL is to overcome this trend, encouraging the brightest and best female solicitors to reach their potential, to voice and realise their ambition, whatever that may be, and providing them with some of the skills and information that will help them to do so.

Recently, many prominent firms including Ashurst and Herbert Smith Freehills have announced targets to increase the number of women in leadership roles. Do you think targets and quotas are the way forward?

Suzanne Szczetnikowicz: Many are against the idea of imposing targets and quotas, and when I started WILL, I was against both since women do not want to receive promotions simply to better the stats but want to earn them for their own talent, business case and contribution to the workplace. That said, as I heard said at one panel discussion, the argument that the setting of quotas or targets for women positively discriminates against men is inherently flawed as it assumes that we are starting with a level playing field, which, for all the reasons set out above, we know not to be the case. The entry levels of women in the profession for the past 25 years have proven themselves to be insufficient by themselves to move the diversity needle.

The setting of targets (and quotas) requires a fundamental understanding and acknowledgment of current organisational statistics, management discussion of intended trajectories and regular measurement of progress against those objectives. Studies, including the recently published Unleashing the Power of Diversity, show the way in which these processes can have real impact on the diversity of businesses. My personal view is now that the use of targets encourages those who are part of the status quo to actively identify talent that is potentially different from their own and that they may have previously overlooked for a number of the already cited reasons, and to recognise the value that those individuals can add to positions of responsibility.

To what extent do you believe that clients can influence gender diversity in private practice teams?

Suzanne Szczetnikowicz: The stereotypical view is that law firms can implement the relevant diversity policies in a manner that fulfils panel appointment criteria whilst not necessarily facilitating or requiring the permeation of those ideals into firm culture and ongoing working practices. The WILL network has spoken with a number of people at general counsel level who question their counsel both when choosing which law firm to appoint and then through regular communications with their law firm to ensure that diversity of talent (not just of a gender nature) can be fostered.

During our WILLconnect series, we have also heard about clients doing internal reviews of how they manage their private practice interface, including the timing for delivery of work to take into account service providers’ personal lives and communicating whom they are expecting to see at the end of the phone or at meetings. Ultimately, career progression requires the development of business as well as excellence in legal skill and other expertise and management proficiency. For private practitioners, therefore, clients can clearly influence progression through the choices they make and their ongoing requests of their service providers.

What advice would you give to young lawyers just starting out in the legal profession?

Suzanne Szczetnikowicz:

  • Be passionate – if you are fortunate to be able to do so, practice the area of law about which you are most passionate as you will likely find yourself more motivated by your work and more successful in your career as a result.
  • Be authentic – your own USP will by definition set you apart from the next service provider.
  • Be vocal – do not shy away from asking about attending key meetings, client or promotion opportunities and salary raises.
  • Be aware –discrimination can come in many overt and covert forms and can be unconscious or, if conscious, can be changed through challenge and discussion.
  • Be proactive – seek out mentors and sponsors both internally and externally in your workplace and profession so that you can gain the benefit of a sounding board as well as advocates who are willing to actively encourage and support your progression.
  • Be bold – do not be afraid to challenge the status quo. The WILL network is testament to that. To use the mantra from this year’s International Women’s Day #BeBoldForChange.

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