International Women's Day - My experience in the legal profession

Catherine Hart, Partner, Digby Brown

International Women’s Day (IWD) has been marked for over 100 years and provides a good opportunity to reflect on developments in equality. As far as the legal profession is concerned, I can certainly say that I have seen considerable change since I qualified in the early 90s - at that time, the number of firms with female partners was very limited and a woman holding the top role in a legal practice would have been very rare indeed.

I think that my own career progression, which has not been a particularly traditional one, demonstrates the change in attitudes in the profession over the years.

After qualifying, I worked full time for five years before starting a family. I chose not to return to work full time, as I was keen to spend as much time as possible with my young children, but I accepted that this choice would have a detrimental effect on my career. For the next decade, I worked very much part time, just a couple of days a week. Part time working was unusual among solicitors then and, although I recognise that I was fortunate to have been given the opportunity to work on that basis, this definitely led to a perception that I was not “serious” about my career and my prospects of progression were seriously limited. In the meantime, I watched female contemporaries who either did not have children, or had chosen to return to work full time after having a family, were being promoted to associate and then to partner.

However, my situation changed after I moved from a fee-earning role to a job as a professional support lawyer (PSL) in 2007. A role that developed in London law firms in the late 1980s, a PSL is a solicitor whose job is not to earn fees and act for clients, but instead to provide resources and training to support colleagues within the business. Traditionally seen as a “woman’s” role (although there are now many very experienced men in this role), largely as it lent itself to part time working, the opportunity to move into professional support suited my skills and strengths, as well as my desire for work life balance. Having worked as a PSL for seven years, in 2014 I had the opportunity to join Digby Brown. A professional support lawyer was a new role for the business and I was aware that, as a non-fee earner, I had to demonstrate that the role was worthwhile and would add value, so I worked extremely hard to develop this and was thrilled when my contribution was recognised in 2017 and I was promoted to partner. Just a decade before, I would not have contemplated this as a possibility. 

It’s still fairly unusual for a solicitor who works part time to be promoted to partner level, even more so a non-fee earner, and it means a great deal to be recognised for the part I play in the success of the business. I have been given opportunities to develop my role and now head a small team providing professional support to our teams across Scotland. I am not sure that many legal practices would have seen the value that a non-fee earning role like a PSL can bring, let alone promoted someone in such a role to partner level.

Although there are now far more women in partnership and other senior roles in the legal profession than there were 30 years ago, there is still some way to go before women are fully represented at that level. There are a number of reasons for this, but it is still to some extent down to the choices that many women have to make in balancing the demands of career and family - choices that fewer men have to consider.

I am fortunate to work in a practice that does not support the presenteeism that is common in so many businesses and that is open to the benefits of flexible working. Before the pandemic, most solicitors had the opportunity to work from home one day a week (although most of us have been working from home full time for the past year). Working part time is not seen as a barrier to promotion - I continue to work part time (4 days a week) and the colleague who was promoted at the same time as me is a woman who also works part time.

I don’t think many legal practices in Scotland would claim to have got everything right in terms of equality – there is always more work to done and at Digby Brown we recognise that. As a profession, we can choose to challenge ourselves and the views that have been traditionally held. If we are open to the idea that different people have different skills and talents to offer, regardless of gender, and we are prepared to be flexible, we will create a more rounded and diverse profession. 

Catherine Hart

Catherine Hart - Partner and Head of Professional Support