Interview with Christina Blacklaws – President of the Law Society

By Kent Law School student Emily Ham (Chair of the Kent Law Clinic Student Committee)

Christina Blacklaws is the President of The Law Society, a professional association which represents and support its members, promoting the highest professional standards and the rule of law. Christina is focussed on three main areas of development: Diversity and inclusion: Women in leadership in the law and social mobility; Technological innovation and the law; and Access to justice.

This interview focuses on Christina’s work towards breaking the glass barriers which women face in the legal industry and her Women in Leadership Programme.

What is your personal experience of being a woman and working in the legal industry?

I think like many women of my generation, I have had mixed experiences. Certainly, when I came into the legal industry in the early 1990s there was a lot of direct discrimination against women. When I was a junior lawyer, I was kept behind by a female district judge and I thought I was going to be praised for the work I had done in court that day. In fact, she said to me that “you are inappropriately dressed” as I was wearing a (very smart) trouser suit! So, I can attest that we have made some progress. However, if you had asked me that when I qualified in 1991, what progress we would make by 2019, I think my younger self would have been horrified at the lack of progress. It’s been a glacial rate for the last 30 years. So, my answer was to set up and direct my own law firm.

I have just been looking through your presidential plan at some of the activities and programmes you have been doing this year. Personally, my favourite was the twinning programme and it sounded really interesting but do you have a favourite activity or programme that you have worked on so far?

I guess my favourite programme, the one I feel most passionate about, is women in leadership in law – and that is because of my own experience but the experience of every women lawyer I have met at every stage of their careers. My key driver is to support women to be activists. From my generation, we need to step up to the plate now so that women of your generation don’t have to go through the same rubbish we did!

Through the programme, we have conducted the world’s largest survey on women in the law, facilitated over 200 roundtables and, via the toolkits, enabled over 3000 women lawyers to become activists through making commitments to actions which will bring about greater gender equality. The global sisterhood part of this project definitely has a key place in my heart. Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to meet and build relationships with women all over the world, which was something I enjoy and learn from. Based on that positive experience in my life, it was important to me to give women the opportunity to get involved with other women lawyers and have the opportunity to be part of campaigns which seek to improve the lives of women and girls across the world.

What is your vision for the end of your presidency regarding women’s rights? What changes do you hope to see?

We have involved many thousands of people in the women in leadership in law programme and that is important as this needs to be a mass movement. We’ve also conducted men’s roundtables and prepared a male champions for change toolkit. We need to get men involved and for them to realise their responsibility to be part of the solution. I think that this is important for junior lawyers to recognise their power and their opportunity to make some positive change. So, what I hope is that from this experience, we are able to give everybody the tools for future activism and this is one of the things which will come out of the symposium on the 20-21nd June when we will release our final toolkits which will encapsulate everything we have learnt about what change we need to bring about and how to do it.

The symposium will be in London at Hilton Bank Side and the ticket sales started this week (week commencing 14th January) with junior Lawyer/student tickets at a reduced price. It is so important that we get women and men from EVERY generation involved as it about passing the baton on.

Another thing we will be doing will be launching our ‘Women in Law’ Charter in conjunction with the Law Commission.

The legal industry has a reputation for its unflexibility, specifically surrounding working hours which can prevent career progression with working mums. How do you think we can help change this?

Firstly, I would like to agree with you, our evidence from our survey showed that 91% of the people who answered said flexible and agile working was important for everybody in law, but it does have a gendered aspect to it, particularly for parents as women continue to bear most of the responsibility for child care. So yes, it is an incredibly important issue. When we ran a smaller and UK based survey about 6 years ago, this issue was seen as the top barrier to women progression. However, in this year’s survey, it was not seen as the biggest hurdle but it is still a significant issue. This year the biggest barrier was seen as unconscious bias. There has been some progress here are law firms adopt more flexible, remote working arrangements.

Nonetheless, from my perspective, this is still something which can be damaging to some women’s careers. Women come back from maternity leave feeling like they’ve been away at war and everybody else has progressed and been promoted whilst their career has stalled. I think law firms need to do more about this, maybe by look at promoting women whilst on maternity leave or by trying to offer full time hours but at hours which fit around their family obligations rather than working part time. There is a lot which can and should be done in this area and future focused businesses who want to retain their talent really need to address this issue and need to ensure that women who come back from maternity leave are enabled to progress their career. The firms who get this right and back their female talent will be the real winners.

Something my friends and I regularly hear is that when choosing our area of law or type of law firm we want to work for, we also need to consider if we want kids in the future. What is your opinion on this?

It should be as much a consideration for your male friends as much as your female friends because actually, children have two parents! If we are going to progress as a society and get true gender equality, then men need to step up to the plate in terms of parenting so chose your life partner wisely!

It should not be a determining factor for young women choosing their career in law. At some point, a vast majority of a law firm’s staff will become parents, and law firms need appropriate policies to respond. It is a generational issue which law firms need to address.

Don’t limit your careers at this point because I am hopeful that we can make the changes which enable you to be successful in law and have a family.

Do you have any advice for women just starting off in their legal career?

Yes, lots!  The first is surround yourself with supporters. There are many challenges with starting a legal career so you need good friends. Right from very beginning of your legal career, seek out mentors and sponsors. A mentor is somebody who can advise you, and a sponsor is somebody who can help remove some of the barriers for you. You may think ‘oh I can’t ask her’ but actually, if you ask, most of the time the answer will be yes or I will find you someone else to do it.
The other piece of advice to take is be courageous. Know your strengths, your power and your worth. If you do those things, you will have a very good start in you careers as you will have both the internal resource and the external support