As part of our work on our most recent report, Women Who Will, Obelisk Support had the privilege of hearing first hand the career advice some of our featured women have for other women building their careers in law.
#1 Be yourself
As Caroline Halliday, Legal Counsel at Schroders told us, “It’s too much effort to be someone else.” Focusing on your strengths, preferences and abilities will help you avoid wasting energy or, worse, falling into the trap of imposter syndrome. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t work to do though.
“Know your personal brand”, advises Ruth Murphy, Legal Director at BT, “Embrace it, refine it but be yourself.”
Understanding and then reinforcing your personal brand through the way you present yourself, the projects you commit your time to and the way you operate takes time and consideration but it’s effort that is worth investing.
#2 Find the balance that works for you
For many women in law, the demands of their career coincide with a peak in their caring responsibilities, often motherhood.
“Don’t make long-term decisions based on short-term commitments”, advises Ruth, “Keep your toe in and explore how you can do that in a way that allows you balance”.
While this balance is often elusive, and no-one gets it right all the time, Carol Paton, Head of Litigation and Investigations at RBS adds, “Ultimately, in a profession sometimes infamous for its long hours, always carve out sufficient time for yourself and your loved ones.” It has been slow progress but we are seeing career paths and ways of working adapt to better support men and women who are combining work and family, so take advantage of every opportunity you see to find your unique balance.
#3 Build your fanbase
Most of the women in law we spoke to called out the importance of mentors in their own career and highlighted their importance.
“Find mentors who will help you to challenge received wisdom, test the status quo and explore new ideas. No-one has all of the answers – it’s identifying the questions that is the first step”, says Rebekah M, Senior VP of Reward & Inclusion at AstraZeneca.
You don’t only need trusted advisors, but also sponsors. Understanding who your sponsors are, and how they differ from mentors, is a crucial ingredient in building a successful career. These are the people who won’t only give you advice in person but will speak up for you when you’re not in the room – whether that’s supporting your decisions or advocating for your promotion or next move.
“Don’t be afraid to ask people, both women and men, to play these roles”, advises Caroline Brown, Head of Legal Operations at Aviva, “Think about how you can develop a diverse network that plugs you into a wide range of perspectives and opportunities.”
#4 Be a mentor and a sponsor yourself
These relationships aren’t a one-way street. “Seek out mentors, sponsors and fellow travellers who can help you to achieve your goals, but also take time to consider how you can help or support them in turn”, counsels Carol Paton. Your perspective and opinions help your mentors and sponsors learn too. Similarly, whatever your current position, you can support others who want to make their next step – and you’ll learn from them too.
#5 Be curious
In both your day-to-day work and in your career planning, make sure you keep an open mindset. “There really is no such thing as a stupid question”, says Caroline Halliday. As well as helping you identify new ways to contribute, making time for your curiosity can help you progress. “Be open to a different career path than the one you set your heart on at age 17!”, says Ruth Murphy, “Through work you get to know yourself, what you enjoy, what you don’t … careers are much more ‘squiggly’ now than even 10 years ago, embrace different opportunities.”
#6 Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
“This is what learning feels like and we are all a work in progress”, points out Rebekah Martin. It’s easy to feel that as you move on in your career you have to have all the answers. This can lead to ruling yourself out of opportunities to progress because you lack confidence or feel too exposed.
“Don’t ever be intimidated by formidable reputations”, says Carol Paton, “Remember the Wizard of Oz, behind the curtain in the Emerald City, even the most acclaimed wizard is as human and fallible as the rest of us.”
#7 “Run to the fire”
To really stand out, Ruth Murphy advises, “Be the person who solves problems for others, who embraces a crisis, it’s often a time to shine and really demonstrate the value you add”.
Caroline Halliday adds, “Be pragmatic – When I was an NQ, I worked for a partner whose favourite mantra was “we are where we are”. When I find myself in a sticky spot, I remind myself that it’s what happens next that counts.” Keeping a cool head and being solution-focused means people will naturally look to you for leadership, whatever your current role. Carol Paton adds “Tornados can bring exciting career opportunities – perhaps a secondment might whisk you from a sepia role to a technicolour new land of legal work that you never dreamed existed.”
#8 Be bold
Don’t stand for behaviour that holds you back. “Be an ally to others and call out examples of behaviour that make you or others feel uncomfortable at work”, says Caroline Brown. “These instances will keep happening until we are routinely having open and honest dialogue about what was said or done and why it was unacceptable. Be open to education on how to be more inclusive.”
#9 Don’t be afraid to innovate
“Be creative”, says Caroline Halliday, “If you think there may be a better way of doing something, find it.” Innovation isn’t always about making massive changes or inventing new products, small changes can have a big impact.
#10 Build relationships, not contacts
“Business is built on people, relationships and trust”, says Ruth Murphy, “Lift your head from the “do-ing” and make relationship-building part of your working week.” Don’t be afraid to bring your empathy and compassion to work when it’s appropriate and authentic. Building lasting human connections is a vital skill, especially in a working world that is becoming faster and more led by technology.
As Ruth Murphy told us, “A career is a long time!”. We hope these insights help you as you forge your own path, and that you’ve enjoyed hearing them as much as we did.