Simpson Millar Celebrates International Women's Day 2024

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Introduction

As we celebrate International Women's Day, on the 8th of March 2024, we embrace this year's theme, "Inspire Inclusion," emphasising the importance of making every woman and girl feel seen, heard, and valued. We're proud to join the global conversation by showcasing the experiences and insights of some of the inspiring women in leadership roles within our firm.

We are pleased to share the amazing stories of Melanie Varey (Partner and Head of Court of Protection), Sarah Woosey (Partner and Head of Education Law), Nicola Darlington (Partner, Director of Performance and part of our Senior Management Team) and Gemma Bielby (Head of Operations for Injury Practice Area). Their experiences offer a glimpse into the changing world of law for women, the hurdles they’ve faced, their moments of success, and the valuable lessons they’ve learned along the way.

Through their stories, we aim to showcase our dedication to creating an environment where talent is nurtured, career development is supported, and where everyone is valued and included.

Join us in exploring the stories and insights of Melanie, Sarah, Gemma and Nicola.

Melanie Varey, Partner and Head of Court of Protection

As a female leader within the legal sector, can you share insights into your journey to leadership? How has the landscape for women in law changed during your career?

My journey to leadership was long! I was raised on a council estate by a very strong mother who, having had me at 16 years old in the late 70’s, wasn’t in a position to pursue her own ambitions at that time and so instilled in me (and my sister, born two years later and who is a nurse), a strong sense of determination and a solid work ethic. My mum often worked 2 or 3 jobs, cleaning or in factories during school hours, and in the evenings, with childcare provided by my grandmother (another strong woman!). I also had my son whilst studying part-time for my law degree, so, whilst he was a baby when I was completing my LPC and training contract, he was at school by the time I qualified, which meant that the burden of childcare was mitigated to some extent. I couldn’t have afforded to work full-time in a paralegal role and also paid the extortionate costs of childcare; this is a real burden for some women. I personally haven’t felt in any way disadvantaged by being a woman, maybe that’s because of the particular firms that I have worked in (there have only been 2), and in each of the firms I have worked for, representation of women at the top table has been strong. In my first firm, we had a chairwoman, and at Simpson Millar, the senior management team is fairly evenly split. As a woman of 44 and in the midst of menopause due to surgery 10 years ago, my focus over recent years has been on recognising the impact menopause has on women in the workplace and talking about it openly and positively. At Simpson Millar, there is a lot of support for this topic being placed high on the agenda; this certainly hasn’t always been the case throughout my career and is a recent development, perhaps because of the media coverage of the work that women in the public eye are doing. I am hopeful that with increased awareness by women of my generation, those who are yet to hit that milestone will be much better supported.

 

In the spirit of 'Inspire Inclusion,' how do you actively contribute to developing the talent here at Simpson Millar, especially among women and underrepresented groups in the legal field? Can you share examples of how the firm supports these efforts?

I commit a huge proportion of my time to developing and supporting younger lawyers to reach their full potential and achieve their career aspirations, regardless of any characteristic. This sector is a tough place to be; the work is very stressful, the hours are long, and it can be very overwhelming at times. My particular driving force is supporting junior people and those thinking of a career in the law who, for any reason, haven’t been given the opportunities that others may have had. I do this in a number of ways:

  • When interviewing for positions in my department, I have identified criteria and skills that are not only academic, such as personal skills, life experience, and voluntary experience, all of which bring value in the particular area of law that I practice in.
  • At Simpson Millar, we have a range of qualification routes open to our people, including those where a University degree is not required.
  • I often speak at Universities to undergraduate students about the work that I do, provide them with advice on how they can improve their prospects, and offer my contact details.

 

What advice would you give to young women aspiring to careers in law, particularly those who wish to advance to leadership roles?  How can they navigate the challenges and seize opportunities for growth and leadership?

Speak to people, get yourself out there, and don’t ever feel as though you don’t deserve a seat at the table, whatever your background or perceived limitations; the future is all within your control. Know your own worth, work hard, and be defiant in the face of adversity. For me, personally, being consistently told that I couldn’t be a Solicitor was a really powerful driver (when I told my careers advisor at school that I wanted to be a Solicitor, he laughed and suggested hairdressing - I often silently send thanks to that man for me being where I am now!).

Gemma Bielby, Head of Operations for Injury Practice Area

As a female leader within the legal sector, can you share insights into your journey to leadership? How has the landscape for women in law changed during your career?

My journey to leadership within the legal sector has been a positive one, and I feel very lucky that, in each business I have worked in, I have had a strong Senior Leadership team who advocate for the development and growth of their people. My experience has been that if you work hard, take on board feedback, and be open to different viewpoints, you can become an all-round leader who can adapt to communication and change. It took time, hard work, and commitment, but surrounding yourself with a good, supportive business with people who want to help was key for me.

 

In the spirit of 'Inspire Inclusion,' how do you actively contribute to developing the talent here at Simpson Millar, especially among women and underrepresented groups in the legal field? Can you share examples of how the firm supports these efforts?

Development is something I am very passionate about for everyone. I was lucky enough within my career to be supported at every level, and my development was taken seriously. I had key leadership around me that recognised talent and helped guide and mentor me to my position today, learning key skills as I went along. On-the-job learning was an equal part of my growth with study. This is a key principle I have brought forward with me to Simpson Millar and my team. It is important to me to understand the development and growth of others, whether that be in a new role or within the role they are in. Taking time to guide, sculpt plans, and be willing to invest my time will always be a priority.

 

What advice would you give to young women aspiring to careers in law, particularly those who wish to advance to leadership roles?  How can they navigate the challenges and seize opportunities for growth and leadership?

Specific drive, focus, and resilience were key to my reaching my goals, which are still ongoing. My advice would be to set goals that are specific, realistic, and short-term so you have milestones to work towards; however, all feeding into the long-term goal. It is important to understand the stages you need to achieve between where you are and where you want to be. Don’t be scared to reach out and ask for advice, and from multiple people, as different views are important and helpful. The biggest thing for me is accountability; support is important, but as an individual, you need to drive your development and your own success. A mentor is great, but take responsibility for your own goals. I mention resilience as it won’t always be easy, you will be busy in your role, sometimes things won’t go your way, but that’s ok. From every experience, you learn, you bounce back, and take the learning into the next opportunity. Belief in yourself is key.

Sarah Woosey, Partner and Head of Education Law

As a female leader within the legal sector, can you share insights into your journey to leadership? How has the landscape for women in law changed during your career?

I don’t think anyone should underestimate what it takes to be a ‘female leader’ in any industry. It continues to be a challenge for women every day to succeed in their careers whilst also balancing the demands of life outside of work, which inevitably impact women more than they do their male counterparts (in most situations). I realise this may be controversial, but I’d be happy to argue the point with anyone who wishes to challenge me on it!

I have been lucky enough to work for and with some inspirational female leaders over my time in law. The Managing Partner of the firm that gave me my very first legal job was an incredibly strong female leader. She was a great lawyer, knew what she believed in, and what she wanted to achieve for her clients, her business, and herself. A true force to be reckoned with, even if you didn’t agree with her on everything. From there, I have continued to work in a sector which is genuinely full of inspirational women who are experts in their field and lead strong teams. I feel as though the legal sector is ahead of other sectors. Our current Education team remains the only Tier 1 team for Education: Individuals according to Chambers and Partners, and we only have one man as part of that team. However, his presence and role in enabling women to succeed and progress should also not be understated, as I strongly believe that men play a huge role in enabling, supporting, and opening up opportunities for women. Give us a chance, work with us, and embrace our sometimes different approaches and opinions. We do add value, and sometimes, we might just be right.

 

In the spirit of 'Inspire Inclusion,' how do you actively contribute to developing the talent here at Simpson Millar, especially among women and underrepresented groups in the legal field? Can you share examples of how the firm supports these efforts?

Simpson Millar is good at ensuring that women and others are provided with opportunities to progress according to their skills and/or knowledge. They are not held back due to reasons related to gender or anything else.

I act as a mentor for some junior colleagues in the firm to support them through their career progression. Outside of work, I also mentor students at Liverpool University and provide advice on career progression and related issues. Having people to speak to, bounce ideas off, and discuss opportunities with is vital for anyone wanting to progress in a specific industry. I was the first in my family to attend University, and I remain the only Lawyer. Having a lack of ‘contacts’ and people who knew what life was really like in the industry I was trying to get into was my biggest challenge. If I can provide those links and that advice to others in a similar position to where I was, then I will continue to do so.

 

What advice would you give to young women aspiring to careers in law, particularly those who wish to advance to leadership roles?  How can they navigate the challenges and seize opportunities for growth and leadership?

Don't be put off. If you know your stuff, then you will be able to succeed. Speak to others and learn from them. Watch and listen to them. Learn from your inevitable mistakes. Get yourself into offices and don't hide away (this is a new challenge post-COVID). Another absolutely vital bit of advice is don't choose your career over and above family. You can have it all, and although I absolutely love my work, it is my children who I will always be most proud of. Just don't underestimate the level of exhaustion that comes with it! Having a family complements your career, and having a career can be important for your family!

Nicola Darlington, Partner, Director of Performance and part of our Senior Management Team

As a female leader within the legal sector, can you share insights into your journey to leadership? How has the landscape for women in law changed during your career?

My journey into a legal career more generally was non-traditional, I have worked in practice for 18 years but only qualified as a Solicitor in 2014.

This meant that while I was technically a trainee Solicitor I had a lot of experience! I was lucky enough that during my time as a trainee the sector I worked in was subject to a lot of change (back in 2013– if you know you know) with the changes to funding, recoverability of success fees and ATE as well as the introduction of new pre-action protocols and portals for certain case types.

These changes provided opportunities for me to get involved, working with a team within the business who were looking at system improvements, new ways of working and how the business was going to react and respond to these new opportunities in our markets.

Part of this work led me right into my first management role, I took on the opportunity of helping to build a new team, with a whole new way of working. It was exciting, daunting, I made some mistakes I’m sure, but I certainly learnt a lot.

Since then I have really embraced taking on roles which give me experience in different areas of our business and give me the opportunity to learn. All of which have given opportunities for leadership. A lot of my leadership experience is not traditional, it isn’t running teams’ day to day – although I’ve done my share of that, leadership for me has been wider initiatives, bigger picture and helping to bring our people together to look at opportunities to make us as a business stronger.

Leadership for me is about inspiring others, showing them a way through a particular problem or task, empowering them to take on challenges and own solutions.

I’m very fortunate that during my career I’ve worked with and for some talented Solicitors, many of whom have been women. While typically women make up the largest portion of the legal workforce, they have been significantly underrepresented in management and senior management positions.

There has certainly been a shift over the years, a welcome one which has seen greater flexibility in the legal sector and more opportunities for progression. While there is still a lot to do, the landscape in legal is changing and I’m delighted to see more women, and other unrepresented groups in senior positions.

 

In the spirit of 'Inspire Inclusion,' how do you actively contribute to developing the talent here at Simpson Millar, especially among women and underrepresented groups in the legal field? Can you share examples of how the firm supports these efforts?

In 2018 I was appointed Training Principal for Simpson Millar, I have held that role ever since, and it is honestly one of the best parts of my job! Being able to support colleagues on their journey to becoming a qualified Solicitor makes my soul happy, an opportunity to share knowledge and experience and to see people achieve their goals just couldn’t be more rewarding.

Prior to 2018, the routes to qualification as a Solicitor at Simpson Millar were quite traditional / typical of what you find in many law firms. There wasn’t a central process, it wasn’t particularly open or transparent, getting a coveted training contract was sometimes more dependent on where and whom you worked for.

We started to change that, we introduced a central process which gave equal opportunities across the whole business for applications, and in 2020 we further expanded our program to introduce more routes to qualification.

As anyone who has looked into a career in law will know it’s expensive, one of the biggest barriers for women and other under representative groups was the cost, this was a barrier to people choosing a career in law, and even for those brave enough to take it on, they sometimes found themselves stuck with limited opportunities for training contracts available and with a lot of student debt.

Our programme now includes routes which provide financial support to colleagues for undergraduate and post graduate academic stages, they also guarantee the on-the-job training requirement – reducing the risk of not qualifying at the end.

These new routes open careers in law to so many people, it goes some way to removing the financial barriers people previously faced, it also gives people more certainty when they start on their journey.

I’m very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to build such a programme here at Simpson Millar, and it grows every year.

Since I took over, I have helped 33 colleagues qualify as Solicitors, of which 25 were women.

I would like to say that all colleagues are appointed on merit alone, our intake process ensures that the panel make decisions based on objective criteria, with parts being anonymous to support this further.

We have an additional 28 colleagues on one of our various routes to qualification at the moment, of which 25 are women.

We’ve had colleagues postpone the start of their training phase for maternity leave, and colleagues who have taken maternity leave during their periods of recognised training, we offer flexibility in hours, and part time training is available.

It’s incredibly important that we support colleagues through this process, which includes supporting them during and after big life events. I feel fortunate to be in a position where I can actively make effect change.

 

What advice would you give to young women aspiring to careers in law, particularly those who wish to advance to leadership roles? How can they navigate the challenges and seize opportunities for growth and leadership?

Law is full of tradition, the traditional routes to qualification, the traditional progression into management and leadership, the ‘way things have always been done’ – my advice is to not worry so much about that.

I have continued my career as it started, in a non-traditional way and I like to think it hasn’t done me any harm, what it has done is give me skills I wouldn’t have got from a traditional approach.

It seems trite to say ‘think outside the box’ and it isn’t really that, it’s more about being open to opportunities, taking risks, and sometimes taking a role which is a ‘side ways’ step because the learning you will get means that you can jump forward in your next role.

Focus on the things that you enjoy, not all parts of a legal career are enjoyable, so think about what you do enjoy and look for opportunities to do more of that or learn more about it.

Be open to what’s happening around you, embrace difficult tasks, challenge yourself to learn about things outside your comfort zone, be engaged with what’s happening in our sector even if it doesn’t directly affect you – does it affect one of your colleagues? It’s important not to just stay in your lane, our lane is Simpson Millar if it affects the business, it affects you even if it’s in an area which isn’t one you work in.

If you do (not all!) but some of these things you will be better rounded for it in the long run and it makes you an interesting candidate, with niche knowledge in your area, but a broader understanding of our business, with skills to lead people.

 

Could you discuss the importance of mentorship and professional development programs, like the Solicitor Training programs, in fostering female talent within Simpson Millar? How do these programs contribute to the professional growth and confidence of women in the firm?

I think mentoring, and professional development programs are important for fostering talent generally, also having set routes clearly articulated and defined gives all colleagues confidence in knowing they have opportunities, and how to go about reaching that next stage of their career or progression.

Historically when I’ve spoken to candidates the biggest reason, they have for leaving a role is because there is a lack of opportunity to progress, or a lack of visibility of what that route might be and how to achieve it.

I have mentioned above, the breakdown of colleagues on our Solicitor Qualification Programme looks when broken down quite crudely men / women ratio – we are certainly more heavily weighted to Women.

But that shouldn’t be a surprise given that roughly 53% of all Solicitors are women, where representation is struggling is in leadership roles with only 32% of all equity partners being women, overall women are underrepresented at Partner level generally (34%) when compared to their male counterparts (Diversity in law firms’ workforce, 2023).

It could be that history is playing out, the reason we have fewer women in leadership roles is because historically they have been underrepresented in the profession. Meaning, there were less women to take on these roles, there might also be other reasons but what I can say is that with a higher proportion of women coming to careers in the law – as evidenced by our Solicitor Qualification Programme intake / qualification breakdown. I can only see these statistics improving with more women in the profession there is more opportunity there to provide a better balance in leadership.

 

Looking ahead, what are your aspirations for women in Simpson Millar? How do you envision the firm evolving to further support and inspire inclusion and the empowerment of women?

Looking ahead I would say that Simpson Millar is in a strong position already, our programmes are expanding to give more opportunities, with different routes and different levels of support. Continuing to grow our own talent through these programmes is key, and I’d like to see the business widen the net further bringing in more routes to qualification than we currently have.

My aspiration for Simpson Millar is to keep building on what we have, to keep looking at how we can support all colleagues to achieve their goals, and where they need it to help shape what their future might look like.

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Gemma, Nicola, Sarah, and Melanie's stories teach us a lot about not giving up, helping our colleagues, and always being open to learn new things. They are key figures at Simpson Millar, setting a great example for everyone else. They prove that with determination and the right support, we can get through tough times and make big improvements at work for everyone.

These women have shown that it's really important to have a positive environment at work where people feel valued and supported. Their journeys highlight how everyone at Simpson Millar is working together to make the firm a place where everyone can do well and feel included. Their efforts make sure that the firm is not just a place to work, but a place where people grow together and respect each other's differences.