Arbitration Future Leaders 2018: Women in Law Roundtable Discussion

As the under-representation of women within the arbitration community remains a polemic issue in the field, Who’s Who Legal brings together Andrea Meier at Wartmann & Merker, Ania Farren at Berwin Leighton Paisner, Chiann Bao at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom and Carine Dupeyron at Darrois Villey Maillot Brochier to discuss the steps the community needs to take to overcome this lack of diversity, the development of the role of women in the profession and future challenges that will be faced by the next generation of female arbitration practitioners. 

Future Leaders Women in Law







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

Andrea Meier: Most importantly, I have seen more female practitioners becoming partners in law firms. While the numbers are still too low compared to the number of female practitioners entering the legal field, the situation has improved. When I started off as a lawyer back in 2003, female partners in Swiss law firms were a rarity. As a result, I did not have many female role models to look up to. This has changed with the growing number of female partners. Many of them have very different approaches on how to balance their career and their private life. I hope the realisation that there is not just one way to pursue a career in the legal profession helps young female practitioners to find the recipe that works for them.

Furthermore, general consensus has emerged that active steps are required to overcome under-representation of women as partners of law firms, lead counsel and arbitrators. I applaud initiatives such as the Pledge, with the aim of promoting equal representation in arbitration, and the fact that it is equally supported by my male and female colleagues. It makes me hopeful for the future that most of my male colleagues are supportive of advancing the cause of gender equality, and recognise the need for action. That being said, challenges remain. There are still far too many women who drop out of the profession before they make partner. The reasons vary, but I do not believe often-heard statements from law firms that there simply are not enough talented women. There are.

Ania Farren: There are certainly more women reaching senior positions – including partnership and even management positions within law firms, or as QCs and judges. BLP has a female managing partner. In the sphere of international arbitration, more women are being as nominated as arbitrators particularly by institutions but also parties. The Pledge (for equal representation in arbitration), which was drawn up in 2015, has played, and will continue to play, a role in this development. I think that the significant support the Pledge has seen has given many the confidence to raise the need for greater representation of women where such an opportunity arises.

Chiann Bao: There seems to be a real movement to address the gender inequalities of the past (and present) in the legal profession. I am sure there are many reasons for this but I suspect this is largely driven by both the importance of retaining talent and the need to mirror the priorities of clients. While there will certainly be some lag before such efforts are realised, I am optimistic that, as a result of these efforts, women will be more influential in the legal profession in the future.

Carine Dupeyron: The greatest change I have observed concerns women acting as in-house lawyers, who have reached leading roles such as general counsel in higher numbers than women being promoted as equity partners in law firms. For the latter, while numbers have undoubtedly increased in recent years, in my view, it remains disproportionate when compared to the quantity of female talent entering the profession.

This progress of women in the legal profession with in-house positions constitutes an extremely positive point, on two aspects. Obviously, it is positive per se, as it confirms that the greatest trust is granted to women for leading roles in corporations by (what remains essentially) male top management; but also, as these women are our firm’s clients, and care (as much if not more than men) about gender equality, it encourages female networking, mentorship, and eventually promoting women as partners in law firms.

Would you say there are any challenges that women face that are unique to those working in the legal industry?

Andrea Meier: I would say that industry-specific challenges arise from gender-based stereotypes which are hard to overcome. Successful counsel are often described as aggressive and tough, stereotypes that are – at least in the culture where I come from – widely perceived as typical male qualities. It matters little that in my experience there is no typical female or male style of advocacy and that the style varies with the person, not with the gender.

Another stereotype that I have been confronted with time and again is that men are said to have an innate understanding for technical matters that women allegedly lack. Regrettably, these stereotypes are still very much alive. They are particularly dangerous because they often occur without conscious awareness. Hopefully, with more and more women entering the field, stereotypes will disappear and we will judge female lawyers based on their abilities, not their gender.

Ania Farren: Maybe not unique, but certainly there are various challenges women face. The fact remains that senior positions at law firms, barristers’ chambers and in the judiciary are still dominated by men. Men are making the important decisions on working systems (which are unlikely to take into account the needs for flexibility that working mothers may have) and promotions (and are more likely to value the characteristics/attributes that are typically “male”).

Many clients are also male, and less comfortable in picking female counsel for a variety of reasons, including fear of the unknown or less experienced counsel, and of course unconscious bias. For those of us operating internationally, in some parts of the world, business culture means that younger women are unlikely to be treated seriously unless accompanied by a more senior male colleague.

We must not forget the long working hours and foreign travel requirements that come with a career in international arbitration. It is a significant juggling exercise to continue a legal career after having children. This may be an unpopular view but I do think that women often take on the bulk of the childcare responsibilities and that the juggling exercise is harder for women than it is for men.

Carine Dupeyron: Having a dual background with business school and law school, I have always found numerous resonances of my own challenges talking with female friends working in corporations, including in fields other than the legal profession.

If I were to define more precisely challenges specific to the legal profession, I would underscore the relative immaturity of the legal profession as to gender discrimination and the limited handling of this question by firms and/or the “community” of firms. This could be the story of the poorly shod shoemaker: while lawyers have cutting-edge knowledge of discrimination from a professional point of view, the structure of law firms – one single profession, similar backgrounds, limited hierarchy (basically two levels, partners and associates, though recently diversified with the creation of senior associate and counsel titles), limited HR management, no lateral evolution, and a decision-making process for partnership essentially among practice groups – has resulted in favouring self-reproduction and in limiting the impact of firm policies encouraging or favouring female promotion.

International arbitration has recently come under fire for the under-representation of women among its practitioners. What steps do you believe the community needs to take to overcome this challenge?

Andrea Meier: I see a big responsibility lying with law firms. Promotion to partnership is a big step towards a successful career in international arbitration. Law firms should actively encourage female lawyers to seek this career step, and offer flexible work-time models that allow women (and men) to combine their career with the needs they have in their private lives. Women make up half of the talent pool. It is not reasonable for law firms to give up on these talents.

On the other hand, I also believe that the female community itself has a responsibility to further advance the cause of women. Women should encourage other women to claim equal rights, both at work and at home, and to ask for the same career opportunities as their male colleagues. I am not saying that every female lawyer needs to make a career, but it makes me sad to see talented women leaving the field for the wrong reasons – for example, because they lack self-confidence or were not given the same opportunities as their male colleagues.

Ania Farren: We all just need to be that little bit braver. With respect to arbitral appointments as counsel, we need to be braver at selling the (possibly younger, less experienced) female candidates to our clients. And we need to be braver at voicing the need for equal representation, recommending female colleagues for referrals, speaking opportunities and roles on relevant boards, etc. We also need to be braver at suggesting more flexible ways of working.

We also need to be generous with our time in mentoring our younger female colleagues. As a young and naïve lawyer I never imagined gender to be an issue, but the more senior I get, the more important I think it is for senior women who have already made it to help those women coming up behind us. This is not positive discrimination – it is what men have always been doing for other men! One of the blocks to the advancement of women is a lack of feminist men.

Chiann Bao: The arbitration community appears to be tackling this issue head on. In particular, we are seeing institutions take the lead in producing statistics and holding themselves accountable for ensuring that women are being considered when making arbitrator appointments.  Such progress is an important first step in building up arbitrator experience for women lawyers.

Carine Dupeyron: A preliminary comment concerns two existing, already-taken steps: the Pledge has been a remarkable initiative and Arbitral Women is a valuable and smart non-profit organisation dedicated to enhance women visibility and solidarity.

As to the next steps, I believe in furthering the evolution of mentalities, by advocating flexibility and encouraging ambition, and in the sincere and active involvement of male lawyers.

On the key front of balancing work and personal life, praising flexibility is essential: not only flexibility relating to a lawyer’s work schedule (allowing part-time work, working from home, preventing undue pressure), but also flexibility in the management of careers: it must be admitted by the legal profession that a partnership track could start at any time and female associates shall be made aware of it. Also, flexibility in the practice of the legal profession should be encouraged to enrich one’s career – judge, professor, in-house lawyer, lawyer in the public administration, partner in a firm. As a professional life is extremely long, and maturity is gained over the years, a lawyer might consider embracing one profession and joining another years later, to develop one’s career and enrich it.

Ambition shall also be encouraged: women must show that they intend to “make it” in a leading role, as opposed to acquiescing to the description of upcoming shortfalls and difficulties, which are also encountered by male associates but rarely highlighted to them in the same terms. For that purpose, mentorship, whether implicit or explicit, shall be welcome and encouraged.

Finally, there will be no change if all members of the community are not convinced by the positive changes that promoting women in arbitration would bring to their cases, to their clients and to their firms. That involves evolution of mentalities, including – as rightfully raised in the McKinsey 2016 study “Women Matter” – a decrease in the so-called “unpaid hours” of women, which concern care-giving and housework that shall be shared more equally than is often the case.

Overall though, I would like to underscore that I have strong trust in the upcoming Y generation and millennials, both male and female, in their qualities of leadership, business awareness and care for discrimination issues, which I find acute and sophisticated, including in their consequences on personal lives.

What will be the biggest challenge for the next generation of women looking to pursue a successful career in international arbitration?

Andrea Meier: International arbitration is a very competitive field. It requires many qualities. Being an excellent lawyer is not enough. Visibility in the industry is of the essence, which requires a lot of networking, travelling, active participation at conferences and article writing. It may be difficult for women who wish to start a family to make this time commitment at every stage of their career. However, I encourage women not to shy away from this challenge. I would not want to deny the difficulties, but I have female lawyer friends who have found ways to make it work, and I encourage young female practitioners to talk to female practitioners of the generation before them and learn from their experiences.

I do believe, however, that balancing work and family is not the only challenge that women face in the legal profession. I have seen female practitioners encountering hurdles that had nothing to do with raising a family, but a lot to do with gender bias. However, it is my strong belief that since gender bias has become a bigger focus of the business and legal community, we will be able to overcome much of it in the next years, allowing women to have the same chances as their male colleagues when pursuing their careers.

Ania Farren: I would say that there will be greater challenges for the younger generation, whether male or female. The profession is changing and we are being put under pressure from clients constantly to reduce costs and work more efficiently. In addition the competition is fiercer – international arbitration will no longer be practised by the “mafia”, but by a much larger, more diverse group of practitioners from all over the world. The next generation of women will have to work hard to distinguish themselves and to think creatively to win work. They will also have to continue to find ways to adapt existing arbitration procedures to the changing and more demanding needs of the users.

Chiann Bao: Some of the challenges that existed for women in the generation ahead of me no longer exist. However, certainly there are new challenges. I imagine one of the challenges is to find a supportive network (of women and men) and an appropriate platform that will allow you to thrive.

Carine Dupeyron: I find younger women extremely well aware of existing difficulties, but they remain insufficiently aware and mature with regard to the required “to-dos” to progress. The legal profession requires, obviously, talent in law, but also a sense of strategy, a certain political awareness, strong relationships with colleagues and clients, visibility and strong support from family and friends.

Hence, one of the biggest challenges for the next generation of women is to rightfully use their perspicacity: it must be a source of motivation, not discouragement! There are challenges, of course, but there are numerous solutions and positive examples of successful women in the arbitration community, with different backgrounds, roles, characters and lives, for one to tailor-make one’s personal, ideal way of practising law in this interesting field.

What is best piece of career advice you have ever received?

Andrea Meier: A few years ago, when I was struggling with what path to take in my career, a friend gave me the advice to focus on my strengths instead of my weaknesses. According to my friend, I would only waste time and energy trying to improve my weaknesses, and I would always be nothing more than average. However, if I focused on improving my skills, I had the chance to stand out in that field.

This advice stuck with me. Ever since, I have tried to be honest to myself about my weaknesses and specialise in areas I am talented at and care about. Not only does that allow me to achieve better results, but it is also much more fun. After all, passion for what you do is what keeps you going.

Ania Farren: I spent the first few years of my career working almost exclusively for a well-known arbitration practitioner. When he left the law altogether I struggled briefly with my own direction and identity. Someone told me that I needed to “grow up” professionally, and not to do good work in the hope of getting a pat on the back from my mentor but to do good work for myself. This transformed the way I looked at my work and my career. Of course, it is important to have a good mentor – but do not lose sight of your own career targets and profile, take responsibility for them, and ultimately do good work for the satisfaction of producing great results for your clients.

Chiann Bao: Best career advice I have been given is one that is tried and tested: "It's a marathon, not a sprint." A career is long, so be patient. Also, hard work is a given but it is also a matter of luck and opportunity. Keep your eyes open and be willing to take appropriate risks. 

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Nominees have been selected based upon comprehensive, independent survey work with both general counsel and private practice lawyers worldwide. Only specialists who have met independent international research criteria are listed.

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