Women in Law. Living with Assumptions

March 7, 2019

academic law, Author Articles

Paper Chain Women

“Let us celebrate the achievements of the many women in law by building networks, supporters and collaborators and examining our assumptions.”

Caroline Strevens is Head of Portsmouth Law School, University of Portsmouth, UK.

I did not leave University with a grand career plan for myself.  I thought I would just acquire the next badge – qualification as a solicitor – and then decide what I wanted to do with my life. I now find myself running a small Law School, that I established in 2008, and as a Reader in Legal Education. I have a circle of wonderful colleagues and enjoy an occasional invitation to speak about issues I am interested in.  I am very lucky.

We cannot help ourselves taking short cuts in our thinking.  I have read that wonderful book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman and encouraged my students to read it. I am going to digress, since this is my blog post; to illustrate the difference in system 1 and system 2 thinking the author compares doing long division (system 2) with complete the phrase ‘hot and..’ (system1).  Please do try this out with groups of colleagues and students since it’s a perfect example of challenging your own assumptions. I asked students and friends to complete the phrase ‘red and..’ Of course, in my mind the answer was blue but out came a rainbow of colours and a wide ranging conversation about why that was.

We make assumptions about other people all the time and this can lead to bias and discrimination.  I shall come back to challenging our thinking styles and what has led me to my current research interest in law students and lawyer well-being. But first I’d like to introduce you to Mr Evans.

I qualified as a solicitor in the nineteen eighties and had the great pleasure of shaking the hand of Lord Denning as I was admitted in a short ceremony in Chancery Lane.  His words to me were ‘an excellent career for a woman’. I did not think much about it at the time. Now, I agree with that sentiment but having experienced the difficulties of balancing legal practice with motherhood I have changed career from practice to academia. I had no idea I would enjoy academia so much, nor how it would provide opportunities to help others.    I was guilty of making an assumption about working for a University and I had no evidence on which to base my opinion.

I worked, as a young solicitor, in the pre-internet age.  We rang opponents and clients and often had to leave messages asking to be called back.  I experienced some difficulties. The call came back to me asking to speak to Mr Evans. I learned to leave a different message: please call back Caroline Strevens and not Miss Strevens.  The assumption was being made about the gender of the person calling – of course it was a man called Mr Evans for whom I worked as a secretary.

In academia, as a former legal practitioner, I have experienced a different type of bias with assumptions being made about my potential to carry out research.  I do not have a doctorate, like most lawyers, and so in the eyes of some ‘I am not a real researcher’. Holding a PhD is a proxy for research capability and if the trend for recruitment policy to require it continues, there is a real danger that in the future Law Schools will hold very few academic staff who have had experience in practice.  In my opinion this would be a loss to both the students experience and to the research environment. Former practitioners have good links with practice.

In recent years I have become very interested in well-being and the potential of positive psychology.  I discovered the work of Deci and Ryan and began to read about the links between motivation, values, well-being and ethical decision making.  I discovered what my own personal values are and oh did that help me manage my emotional responses.

As an academic, we are able to influence change through writing and conference presentations and networking.  We can collect and analyse evidence and use it to challenge assumptions. Why are we currently reading about young solicitors being struck off for dishonesty because they had not been able to face up to their fears in the face of poor management and unethical law firm culture? Why are so many young lawyers, and disproportionately female, leaving the profession?

Being a solicitor should be a great career for a woman.  I left it because I was asked to increase my hours to work full time when I had two children under 3 years old.  Support for flexible working has been considerably enhanced as a result of culture change and technology. Now is the time for us to educate for well-being.  We need to understand how to stand up to pressure at work and we need to understand how our motivation is linked to our well-being. This means forging closer links between academia and legal practice and working together.

Let us celebrate the achievements of the many women in law by building networks, supporters and collaborators and examining our assumptions.

Caroline is a co-author on the forthcoming Elgar title ‘Creating a Therapeutic Legal Pedagogy: Lessons and Practices for Legal Education”.

2. Caroline Strevens Pic

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