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How law firms have changed and where they need to go next

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In this series of articles we’re in conversation with Caroline Skinner, the General Counsel for G4S Europe Middle East, and Ingrid van Berkel, a former Eversheds Sutherland Partner, and now a TPC Leadership executive coach and facilitator. Here they address how law firms have changed for the better and what their needs are going forward.

Both Caroline Skinner and Ingrid van Berkel have had distinguished careers as lawyers. Much has changed for the better since they started out in the profession but there are other shifts coming – some overdue, others enforced by external factors. 

While leadership development is often overlooked in the legal sector, the focus on achieving hard results can lead lawyers to overlook other pressing issues, some of which could have significant financial implications. Reputational risk and the court of public opinion can be as damaging as legal risk and, as Caroline warns, can be much more difficult to predict or manage. 

How law has evolved for women

When Caroline first started out in law, she says that most of her female colleagues dealt with family law, litigation, debt collection and matrimonial law, and that she often felt unique as a corporate lawyer. Quite often these subjects require a lawyer to deal with high emotions, which is perhaps why men felt less comfortable working in these areas.

“But by the time I left private practice in 2008, I was witnessing a lot more women rise up in the sectors that were traditionally male-dominated,” she says. “It was refreshing to see and work with amazing and very talented women who were corporate, commercial and construction law partners. I also saw women very well represented in the legal department of G4S, the company I began working in-house for, which I suspect was partly due to the very progressive attitude of our Danish Global General Counsel.”

Although Caroline was seeing clear signs of progress, there were also indicators that leadership in general was still one sided. There were 18 people on the leadership development course that changed everything for her, yet only two of them were women. 

Ingrid points out that this disproportionate leadership demographic is significant because without a woman in leadership to look up to, it can be harder for others to aspire to a similar position. When she was at PwC, Ingrid had a female partner – and mother of three – supporting her the whole way. This made all the difference.

“She supported me to become one of the five or six female partners in the Netherlands in 2002 who were in accountancy, tax and legal,” says Ingrid. “From that point on I would have been seen as a role model by other women in my firm – though I didn’t often see myself that way. And now Eversheds Sutherland Netherlands has reached a threshold of 40% female partners, the highest percentage among the top 50 largest law firms in the country.

Daring to ask for maternity leave

Ingrid also commented on how maternity played out for her. She was already a partner when she became a mother, and she believes this made a big difference at that time .

“Even now, if you’re a rising star in the legal profession and you become a mother, it may slow down or even stop your career,” says Ingrid. “But if you’re already a partner by the time you begin paying attention to your private life, that’s somehow more acceptable.”

Acceptable or not though, even highly established lawyers like Caroline could still face backlash for taking maternity leave. She notes that in private practice, when she told her boss she was pregnant, his reaction was “but we’re busy.”

“When I later became pregnant while working with G4S, I was apprehensive about informing my Danish boss because of the previous reaction I had received,” says Caroline. “But instead when I broke the news, he gave me a big hug, said it was wonderful news and told me not to worry about a thing.” 

Although Caroline’s private practice partner had responded poorly, this was perhaps not the worst treatment Caroline received for taking maternity leave. A week before she was due to return to work, she received a call from G4S – a client of hers at the time – who were double-checking to see when she was going to return to work as they had an important M&A transaction they wished her to lead on. Apparently, one of Caroline’s male colleagues had told her client that she would not be back for months.

“He was in full knowledge I would be back the following week,” Caroline says. “I was so close to having my whole career changed by one of the male partners trying to poach my client right before I returned from maternity leave.”

The underlying issues at play 

This kind of toxic competition is possibly a symptom of a wider issue in law firms: collaboration is almost non-existent.

“Lawyers are not trained to collaborate,” says Ingrid. “They are primarily trained to fight for their own clients and that’s all they do. Sure, they are taught to cross sell, but that’s not collaboration because everyone is still working for their own profits or merit.”

When she first started in law, that individual-focused culture and absence of teamwork created a sense of isolation she couldn’t cope with. It can be a solitary job being a lawyer, Ingrid reflects, and private practices would benefit from addressing this.

“I remember sitting in my room feeling very, very lonely,” she says. “I was supposed to be a lawyer and act like a lawyer, but I was only 22 and I didn’t have a clue how to be taken seriously. This was part of the reason I transferred to PwC, because they enabled me to work within a multidisciplinary team of professionals – and I learned a lot there from people in other disciplines.”

Changing the culture of law firms

As Richard Macklin, the former Global Vice Chair of the world’s largest law firm, told us in a recent interview, it’s essential for law firms to shift their culture. Ingrid believes that personal development can play a big role in this.

“Being the best lawyer is not about knowing the law best,” she says. “I’m of the opinion that you need to offer lawyers more than legal tools. They need personal development and coaching to deal with the challenges, pressures and stress the job brings along. And if you want to make a culture change in the legal profession, you have to start with the young and then support them throughout their careers.”

If you are a lawyer looking to hone your skills in leadership development, get in touch to find out how TPC Leadership can help you.

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