IBA 2023: ‘Men shouldn’t be the reference point for what success looks like’

A panel of female law firm leaders discussed what makes good leadership and how to sustain progress made on diversity and inclusion at the IBA annual conference in Paris

From left to right: Dr Franklin Vrede, Paula Surerus, Aedamar Comiskey, Linda Yang, Marie-Aimée de Dampierre, Maria-Pia Hope, Farmida Bi, Carola Van den Bruinhorst

Empathy, patience, generosity and attentiveness are among the characteristics that make women such great leaders in the legal industry, according to panellists speaking at Wednesday’s IBA showcase on female leadership. 

Paula Surerus, managing partner of Veirano Advogados, said that such qualities can help management teams “obtain the full engagement and potential” from the partners, and drive further collaboration and information sharing. 

Marie-Aimée de Dampierre, global chair at Hogan Lovells, added: “Women are listening, and people feel that they trust us, that they are in a safe environment. This helps build trust internally and with clients, and this in turn incentivises great collaboration and work culture.” 

Women also bring empathetic people management skills to the table, adds Maria-Pia Hope, managing partner and CEO of Vinge. Having women in partner roles has helped shift and expand the substance of discussions at partnership and business level, she says. 

Farmida Bi, Norton Rose Fulbright’s chair for Europe, Middle East and Africa, said: “For the last 22 years that I’ve been partner, female colleagues across the industry have been asking management teams: ‘let us in, we’ll manage better and make you more profitable’. But now, as a leader at my firm, I feel that this conversation has shifted across the industry to: ‘We have to be more diverse because it’s more reflective of who we are as firm’.” 

Bi adds that there is a profound unfairness in the business structures in the legal industry. 

“Almudena is [one of] the first female IBA presidents, and I hope we won’t be waiting another 20 years before having another one,” Bi said. “As women, we’ve always been told that we have to be as good as the next man, it shouldn’t be that men should be the reference point as to what success looks like. Fundamentally, it’s all about fairness.” 

Breaking down stereotypes 

When asked whether the definition of femininity and female leadership has imposed a prison around their leadership style, the panellists agreed that gender stereotypes were unhelpful and that women are more than capable of making tough decisions. 

Aedamar Comiskey, senior partner and chair at Linklaters, believes that women in the workplace should be thought of in a more comprehensive way. She said: “We have all those qualities, but women aren’t just there to do the nice soft people management stuff, they’re also here to do the difficult business stuff, the long hours and tough business decisions, the client management, closing big M&A deals, helping businesses fight for a case in court, and so on.” 

This was echoed by Bi, who added: “I don’t see why anyone should be constricted to what other people’s perceptions of them are. As leaders, we have to make tough decisions but there is a difference between making a tough decision and imposing it, the communications for that are key. Most men wouldn’t think twice about those decisions, and neither should women.” 

Hope agreed, stating that communicating tough decisions can still be compassionate and empathetic when done properly.

Boosting diversity 

When it comes diversity and inclusion, de Dampierre said that women have been instrumental in speaking up against inequalities within the legal profession. She says women have helped drive change towards more gender equality and raise awareness for other diversity and inclusion issues so that everyone can thrive in law firms, but this is still a work in progress and everyone needs to take part. 

She adds that such changes need to be embedded in a firm’s policies, strategy, structure and culture, adding: “The test will be: do clients want to work with you? Do people stay long at the firm? Do people have a positive experience throughout their career at the firm?” 

Bi noted that women have been part of the profession for a long time in certain jurisdictions, and she finds it “bizarre” that some industry players are still not able to reflect that.

Talent retention 

Law firms also need to understand the business case for improving diversity. In light of the Great Resignation, de Dampierre says it is “all about attracting and retaining talent” and firms need to understand that younger generations expect their employers to support them to develop professionally and personally, and that they can demonstrate they are a responsible business that is inclusive and mindful of the environment as well. 

She said: “The thinking at management level should be: as long as people stay with the firm, we want them to have the most positive experience possible. Clients will want to work with firms sharing these values, too.” 

Comiskey seconded that thought, adding that diversity and inclusion is “the right thing to do” and is key in retaining talent. She said: “As leaders, we need to think about what makes people proud to work at a firm. These types of conversations show us what works and what can be improved.” 

Equal reward 

In the face of gender pay gaps, often slower career progression and a lack of access to leadership roles for women across professions, Bi advises law firms to look at their remuneration structures and to reward those who “do all the extra bits that make a law firm great” – roles that often are taken up by women, she said. 

Comiskey agreed: “Everybody needs to do their fair share of everything. In a law firm, all partners need to look after and develop teams, clients and make money. It shouldn’t work in gendered silos. You need to do it all regardless of who you are.”

This article first appeared in the daily newspaper for the IBA Annual Conference 2023, which is published in partnership with The Global Legal Post  

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