Growing up with the Legally Blonde franchise implanted idea of becoming a lawyer in the minds of millennial women everywhere. Who didn’t imagine their first day in an office wearing a pink Chanel suit? While law is an age old institution, it still remains high on the list of dream jobs. Take the number of applicants to study law at the University of Cambridge, statistics show a gradual incline where over 1500 individuals were recorded for 2020 admissions. However, it’s still commonly known as a male-dominated industry that many associate with elitism. It’s an occupation that has heard the calls to diversify and become more inclusive. At this pivoting point, The Haute Heel team spoke to International arbitration lawyer Meghan Cai*. She shares her insights as a female solicitor in London at an international law firm.
What did you study?
I studied Law at Oxford University. I wanted to do [a history course] that was relevant to modern society. Law is a living thing that changes throughout time and determines how we think about certain subjects but reflects society.
What is the typical career path for a solicitor?
If you want to be a solicitor, you’ll look for a vacation scheme in your second year. I started thinking about it in the spring/ summer of first year [as] something like an internship. I think law is quite unique in how they handle these [training] contracts. In no other field are you signed up to join a firm two years before you actually qualify! People do break their contracts [and a lot of] people pursue other things once they’ve qualified.
[During university] I did one vacation scheme and during the second month [of the summer break], I wanted to brush up my language skills, so I did a Mandarin course in Beijing. I am now practicing international arbitration at a law firm in London, as an associate.
Lawyers refer to each other in terms of PQE (post qualified experience). To become a salaried partner, you need certain level of experience because you’ll be consistently bringing in business, spearheading cases and there’s a lot of liability. Typically, it can take nine to 12 years.
Let’s talk starting salaries…
It ranges wildly, at the top end you have American firms that follow the Cravath scale. Magic Circle and Silver circle pay slightly less. Then you have city or regional firms that offer lower salaries than international ones. If someone wanted to focus on private wealth or real estate, they may well go to more regional firms that are more specialist. There’s a misconception that people must get into an international firm.
How secure is law as a career and is it future-proof?
Law is generally thought of as a career with more job security, and to an extent this is true (for solicitors, anyway). However things are changing in the legal industry – there is more competition than ever for solicitors in law firms as technology takes on more of the jobs that junior lawyers have traditionally been tasked with. Some people think this is scary but I think it’s probably for the best – if technology can help us cut down the most mundane tasks that can be easily automated, this leaves the more interesting work for the humans and cuts client costs. Win-win.
There is also no way of truly “future-proofing” your career apart from making sure you are always willing to learn and adapt. For example, in the last global financial crisis in 2009, many lawyers were made redundant even in large City and Magic Circle firms as finance and transactional work suffered. I know some lawyers who made the decision then to pivot into insolvency work and have ended up making a successful career out of it. Law may provide you with a good skillset but you still need to roll with the punches!
What’s the work life balance like and are the stereotypes true?
This is a tricky question because the answer will depend on what type of work you do, the firm you work for and your team culture. For example someone working in the corporate or banking team at a Magic Circle firm will have a very different work-life balance to someone working in real estate in a smaller boutique firm. What constitutes balance is also different to different people: when you work in a team who are all pulling long hours, the person with the best “work-life balance” may still be working 10 hour days!
As a rule of thumb, you can expect work-life balance to be worse in firms where you are paid more (ie. US firms). As a trainee or junior lawyer in a big international law firms, you can expect to work hard. There will be times you need to work weekends and everyone has a few all-nighter horror stories up their sleeve. That said, it is generally manageable and you can still maintain a thriving social life most of the time if you manage your time well.
Does social media play any role in the career of law?
Yes. Social media is becoming more important than ever, particularly in these post-Covid times when everything (networking included) is conducted virtually. Most law firms provide social media bites that lawyers can share on their LinkedIn accounts and some even coach partners and associates on how to use social media appropriately and effectively. By social media, I am referring primarily to LinkedIn. Some law firms also use other social media such as Instagram or Twitter, but – at least for now – the focus on those channels seems to be on graduate recruitment rather than genuine business development.
How inclusive do you think London based law firms are for women and POC?
Frankly there aren’t many non-white people at the top in law firms, and even fewer non-male, non-white people. I would say you feel more like a minority being an ethnic minority than being a woman, as firms have been working on improving gender equality for a number of years now. It is disheartening but you do have to bear in mind that most partners and senior management made their way up a while ago, and that there has only been a real push for diversity in recent years.
To their credit, law firms seem genuinely interested in changing the status quo: there seem to be more diverse groups of trainees and junior lawyers coming through the ranks each year, and firms are taking the issue of female progression and retention more seriously these days (e.g. in providing support for those coming back from maternal leave). Widely accepted gender equality pledges (like the Women in Law pledge launched by the Law Society) also make clear that this is no longer a niche topic for HR teams, but a very relevant issue for all. More importantly, clients are asking law firms to provide diverse teams, and law firms are seeing the business need for diversity. The events of this year have also brought racial diversity to the fore and law firms seem to be paying attention to this (finally!), and taking action by setting diversity targets and encouraging dialogue.
Make no mistake – there is still a lot of work to be done. This is based on my personal experiences practicing as a female solicitor in London and having productive conversations on these issues with my peers. And given the momentum on diverse workplaces that has built up over the last few years, I have hope that the “pale, male and stale” stereotypes will soon fall away.
Thinking about pivoting careers? Read about working at Christie’s auction house here.