An Interview with Anna Birtwistle
Who’s Who Legal – November 2013
Birtwistle is co-chair of the international employment committee, and the UK country member representative and liaison to the Law Society of England and Wales, for the ABA Section of International Law. In addition she holds positions as the co-chair of the human rights committee and member of the executive committee of the International Association of Young Lawyers (AIJA) and is the UK chapter co-chair for the International Section of the New York State Bar Association.
An employment lawyer with a keen interest in discrimination issues, women in law is a topic that holds a particular interest for Birtwistle. Following her training and qualification at Simmons & Simmons, she joined London-based employment and partnership boutique CM Murray where she works on contentious and non-contentious matters with a strong international element. She describes herself as “very lucky” to have found not only an area of law that she truly enjoys but also a firm in which she has found inspiring role models.
The choice for this year’s session topic was made following the success of last autumn’s discussion in Miami on “women on corporate boards”. Birtwistle describes how questions from the audience quickly steered the conversation to the legal profession and there was general consensus that there is “clearly a problem with retaining women at the senior levels of the profession”. The decision was soon made to explore the topic more fully at the next autumn meeting in London. What ensued was a lively debate among private practitioners and in-house counsel, both male and female, as to why so many women are not reaching the senior levels of the legal profession.
Who’s Who Legal: One of the key issues raised during the session was whether current performance measures used to decide whether to promote lawyers to partner are sophisticated or clear enough. What measures do you think should be considered? How would these benefit women looking to advance their careers?
Anna Birtwistle: There is a real issue in many firms around transparency of the process for partner selection, a problem that affects male as well as female lawyers.
The problem as it applies to women is multiplied because often women are being judged against leadership styles that are gender-based – this is sometimes labelled as the masculine model of the ideal partner.
The problem is double-edged: on the one hand it leads to female lawyers self-selecting out of the partnership route because they do not see themselves as fitting into that prevailing model of success. On the other, there is the problem of unconscious bias whereby the individuals charged with identifying the next pool of partners select – even without meaning to – in their own image. Where around only 13 per cent of the equity partners of top 20 law firms are female, this can have a significant detrimental impact on women.
On top of this, there continues to be an “up or out” culture at many firms whereby associates who haven’t “made it” within a certain number of years are to some degree written off. Law firms are hopefully starting to recognise the need for different tracks (and timescales) to partnership, particularly where women (and gradually more men) take time off to have a family part way through their careers.
Who’s Who Legal: Targets, rather than quotas, have been accepted by the industry as the best method of increasing the number of women at the top of the profession. What is your personal opinion?
Anna Birtwistle: Many female lawyers I talk to do not want to be perceived as having been promoted on the basis of their gender. That is understandable and any form of positive discrimination is always going to be highly controversial whether it applies to gender, race, sexuality or any other ground.
In the UK, the Lord Davies’ review of women on boards, which recommended 25 per cent women on FTSE 100 boards by 2015, and the 30 Percent Club – a group of chairmen of boards who are voluntarily committed to bringing more women on to UK boards – have been a welcome catalyst for change through targets and are still relatively new initiatives. I agree that these initiatives need to be given time to allow a fair chance of making a significant difference before we move to consider instituting any mandatory quotas.
My personal view? While perhaps unpopular, if there was a choice between having the opportunity to prove myself in a position or not having that opportunity at all, I think I would go for the former and do everything in my power to show anyone questioning my merit that they were wrong! That is a personal view in an imperfect world and I think it is far from ideal to even have to consider quotas in an industry where we have far more women than men entering the profession. The question of quotas (including the level at which any quota or target should be set) is an incredibly complex one, with no black or white answers; unfortunately the numbers speak for themselves and I think that something drastic needs to be done.
I think that the conversation about gender diversity is reaching a level of noise now (not only in the legal profession but across the corporate sphere more generally) that I am hopeful that things are going to change.
Who’s Who Legal: There was considerable discussion around the question of whether women ought to be better at self-advocating or if it is best for colleagues to “spread the word” on their behalf. What is your view?
Anna Birtwistle: In any profession, the reality is that you need to self-advocate and cannot rely on others to promote your career. Like many women, however, and without meaning to generalise too much, as a woman I find this harder than many men might do. To say women just need to get on with becoming better self-advocates, however, is much too simplistic. This is because it has been shown that women who do self-promote (in a manner akin to men in the context of asking for salary increases or taking credit for work) are often not looked upon very favourably by either their male and female peers. It is incredibly sad that there continues to be a negatively perceived correlation between women and success.
The idea raised by one of the audience members about women standing up and advocating on behalf of their colleagues is certainly a good one but I would not advise women to rely on this alone.
Who’s Who Legal: Do you believe in mentoring or sponsoring younger lawyers?
Anna Birtwistle: Yes, I believe that both mentoring and sponsoring are very important at all levels of career development. I think it is important for female lawyers not to limit themselves, however, to looking for only female mentors and sponsors.
Having a sponsor in particular can make a huge difference to career progression. While having a mentor is great for taking career advice and having a sounding board, it is not the same as having someone stand up for you and actively promote your career. The third important factor in encouraging more women to strive for senior roles is to have more role models with whom they can identify. I am incredibly lucky to have two such female partner role models at my firm.
Outside of the firm I have been very fortunate to have met a senior US male lawyer who has actively promoted me for speaking and leadership roles within the ABA, and I’ve seen first-hand what a difference it can make when someone puts their name behind you.
Who’s Who Legal: The role of client pressure in bringing about change in law firms cannot be underplayed. Have you experienced clients asking about the gender diversity of their legal teams?
Anna Birtwistle: I wish I could answer yes to this question but I have not personally experienced this. I think when working for PLCs or large banks and pitching then it might come to bear, but I am not seeing this from our clients (although note that we are a predominantly female firm, so that may explain why!).
Corporates are alive to the need for equality and diversity and a key facet of that training covers gender issues. We have provided training on maternity rights to a number of law firms over the last year. The highest number of discrimination cases are still gender-related and most often coincide with maternity leave and childcare issues. We counsel clients on how to best deal with female employee requests to return from maternity leave and flexible working.
Who’s Who Legal: Are certain practice areas less “women-friendly” than others?
Anna Birtwistle: Unfortunately I would say the answer to that is: definitely. Transactional work involves highly unpredictable hours and often involves a high degree of teamwork. This makes it difficult for lawyers to work independently from home. Some areas provide a better work/life balance and this is reflected in the higher numbers of women in certain practice areas. Employment is one of those areas, as is family law. Firms could do more to alleviate this problem; for example when teams are put together to work on deals, they could be mindful of the fact that some members have requirements to work flexibly and balance these needs accordingly.
Who’s Who Legal: Do you think flexible working will ever be achievable in “big law”? What alternative career options are available to lawyers who require more flexibility?
Anna Birtwistle: Considering the size of the workforce and the resources available in large firms, it should be achievable. Technology has a huge role to play in allowing people to work from anywhere and one would hope that firms use this not only to allow lawyers to be contactable 24 hours a day by clients, but also to allow lawyers more flexibility to work around family and childcare requirements. The culture of putting in face time at the office seems very outdated yet hard to break.
Some alternative options for lawyers looking for more flexibility are to go in-house, work as a consultant or look to smaller law firms. It will be interesting to see what happens with the advent of alternative business structure firms and whether their being led by non-lawyers will create a different culture of working. Some of the more innovative alternatives include Obelisk Legal Support, which was set up to enable lawyers, particularly ex-City lawyers, to work around other commitments such as families. They have recently been recognised by the FT Innovative Lawyer Awards 2013 as a “Stand Out” in the legal industry pioneers category.
One concern for lawyers looking to leave “big law” is that they might not get the same quality of work in a smaller firm. This is particularly true in the corporate and finance fields. The growth of boutiques and specialist firms vying for top work is enabling those lawyers practising in areas such as IP, employment and white-collar crime to enjoy a different working culture while retaining a top-quality practice.
Who’s Who Legal: What is your greatest achievement to date?
Anna Birtwistle: Anyone who has known me for a long time will know that I used to hate public speaking with a passion. I did not think I would ever get over this fear – and to now regularly speak publicly for my job (and sometimes even enjoy it!) is a huge personal achievement.
Other than that I am very happy with the work and recognition I have had for the international work I have done. Being listed in The International Who’s Who of Management Labour & Employment Lawyers in 2013 while still an associate is something I am very proud of!
Who’s Who Legal: What is the best piece of career advice you have received?
Anna Birtwistle: Nothing groundbreaking here but simply that you need to enjoy the area of law you work in. The reality is that law is a client-led profession and demanding. You need to have a genuine interest and get satisfaction from what you are doing. Employment law is always changing in line with the politics of the time; it keeps moving and is always relevant.