How much harder is it to build a business as a woman? Here, four female firm owners delve into whether networking as a woman in law is harder and what more the profession can be doing to support female business leaders.
Five years ago, Balance Family Law director and co-founder Perpetua Kish said she would have done “anything and everything possible” to avoid networking and business development.
“In the years prior to starting my own business, I avoided networking like the plague.
“Why? Mostly because of certain underlying ideas about what networking and business development required and entailed. Back then, my perception was that networking had a singular definition: lots of people together in a room, lots of hearing from others about all the great things that have been happening in their firm,” she said.
“The premise seemed basic: pack a room full of corporates and leave things to run their course. It would often happen early in the morning or after hours, both times not conducive to the effective management of parenting responsibilities. I attended a few of these and recall a disproportionate number of men compared to women, and a sea of grey, and eyes glazing over if I mentioned my young children. The fish-out-of-water level was high.
“But then I started my business in 2019, and I realised very quickly I would need to change my attitude to networking. I was without a network, and for our fledgling firm to really get going, I would need to put myself out there. So much like how I designed my firm to fit my needs and interests, I took a very similar approach to business development and networking.”
Rise Legal managing director Helen Kay started her career in the UK, where her supervising partner helped her craft a business development plan, where many of her key performance indicators (KPIs) were tied to efforts to do with it.
“Upon moving to Australia and joining a top-tier firm, I was eager to continue honing my business development skills, which I excelled at and enjoyed. However, I quickly discovered that such practices were not the norm here, and these vital skills were not nurtured until much later in people’s careers. I believe this is a missed opportunity because these are skills that should be developed right from the start of a lawyer’s career,” she said.
“But I don’t believe that difficulties with business development or networking should be framed as a male versus female consideration – it’s more about introversion versus extroversion. Personally, as an extrovert, I find networking to be incredibly natural and energising; I thrive on human connections!
“The key is having a clear plan and sticking to it. In my case, it involves pinpointing where my ideal clients and strategic partners congregate, getting in front of them, actively listening to understand their pain points, and then executing a tailored follow-up strategy. I firmly believe that anyone, regardless of gender, who follows a well-thought-out plan can achieve success in this arena.”
While Maison Chen Law Group chief executive and principal lawyer Traci Yan Yan Chen agreed that in 2023, business development and networking isn’t any harder for female firm owners, she did say that for these firm owners to grow their firm, “it takes sacrifice”.
“It is hard to juggle everything, and you shouldn’t have to. You shouldn’t take on every role yourself. Delegate well and focus on where you are needed the most. Be innovative in your approach because that is how you can get ahead of other law firms. There is plenty of opportunity out there, and the pie is big enough for everyone. Most importantly, you just have to believe in yourself to do it; if you believe in yourself, everyone else will believe in you, too.
“There are so many associations and networking groups now to join. If you are proactive in looking for these communities and getting involved, you will find many opportunities to network and work with other like-minded females in the industry. Or even other industries! It should not be confined to the law. You will also need to find the right mentors and pay well for the right guidance and advice,” she explained.
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“I think it is also important to believe in yourself and put yourself out there and unlearn any impostor syndrome. You need to retrain your brain to never have these thoughts; once you remove these thoughts, you will be able to go very far. A lot of the time, when this exists in your mind, then you project this onto people you meet and work with.”
Reaching out to other firm owners or lawyers is also a good way to engage and network further, according to Danny King Legal principal Danny King.
“While there are a range of initiatives to support networking for female firm owners, we often face difficulties balancing both professional time constraints and the care burden at home. One positive that came out of the pandemic was that video conferencing reduced the barriers to networking, and I’ve had a number of really successful meet and greets doing so. There’s no harm in reaching out and asking for a chat.
“It takes confidence to make an approach in the first place, as well as some reflection to make sure it’s someone you can form a connection with, but it’s how I’ve formed many strong relationships in the industry,” she said.
“Finally, you need to walk the talk. We regularly review the barristers we use and actively seek out talented women to add to the list, as well as providing opportunities to women in the early stages of establishing their own firm.”
Further supporting female firm owners and women in leadership
While the profession is slowly but surely moving away from the “typical power structures” that were once the norm, the legal industry can still do better to “recognise that success comes in many forms”, emphasised Ms King.
“Firms also need to facilitate alternative working structures that accommodate different levels of flexibility availability. Practical inclusivity needs that flexibility, which we hope will become the norm in no time,” she said.
“I’m fortunate enough to be in a place now where I have strong relationships, but that wasn’t always the case. Some of the best referrals that have come through my network are as a result of the relationships where I’ve made a push to get out there.”
Similarly, Ms Chen said that there is still a stigma around women running a business after having a family.
“Celebrate women who are able to run a business and have a family. People often think that once a woman has a family, she has taken a step back and is no longer as focused on her business. But if we celebrate this more and highlight her wins, this should remove this stigma,” she added.
“Address the societal issues of assumed responsibility for women. Quite often, we believe it is work causing the stress, but assumed responsibilities of women manifest [themselves] when women carry full-time jobs, which is then seen to be stressful. This is a deep societal issue, but the legal profession can provide insights and advice around this to better support women and help them identify the root of this problem.”
Support should also extend to all professions – and is about “training and education across the board”, according to Ms Kay.
“Firms should actively encourage this by integrating training into the key performance indicators (KPIs) of all their legal staff, not just senior lawyers. Everyone should have access to support and encouragement for activities such as enhancing their social media presence, attending networking events, contributing to publications, and presenting at industry gatherings – not solely focusing on billable output. Business development skills should receive even more emphasis in practice management courses and continuing professional development (CPD) courses,” she said.
“Law societies could play a more significant role in the young lawyer space by focusing on developing these soft skills, bringing in mentors, collaborating with the profession to establish training in this area, and supporting young professional events.”
The profession should also establish more mentorship and sponsorship programs for women, as well as additional training, Ms Kish opined.
“[The legal profession] can also offer training to leaders to recognise and address the unconscious bias women face to foster fairer and more accessible networking environments. The profession can also continue to celebrate women’s accomplishments to motivate and also serve as inspiration, reinforcing a commitment to gender equality.
“Supporting women in leadership roles and business development involves a commitment to fostering a more inclusive and equitable professional environment. It starts with embracing diversity and refraining from judgement – including with how we judge ourselves. When women can be ourselves, embracing our uniqueness and diverse perspectives, we are far better positioned to navigate the business world, build meaningful connections, and succeed in leadership roles. The takeaway is clear: valuing diversity and authenticity is not just a personal win but a smart strategy for success in business and networking,” she concluded.
“The profession can support women in business development by genuinely valuing a spectrum of perspectives, backgrounds, ideologies, and personalities and creating safe spaces that not only permit but encourage such diversity. Inclusivity and diversity should be fundamental to industry events and conferences. Successful firm owners from various backgrounds, ideologies and stages should be visible to aspiring women firm owners – because it can be hard to be what you can’t see.”