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Ayesha Vardag, founder of Vardags Solicitors won Lawyer of the Week last week following her landmark win in the Court of Appeal acting for a German heiress in the prenup case Tatler headlined as “The divorce of the century”. I talked to her about women in the legal profession and her personal brand – this is what she had to say:
What issues are women in the legal profession facing today?
“The legal sector is heavily populated by women. Yet they are not proportionately represented in the top jobs. I believe this is partly to do with working patterns and norms, which have been established over years by men who are single, or have wives who look after their homes and children. Hence the culture of long hours physically in the office. This is outdated. In my experience women, including women with children, work just as hard as men, just as effectively, but are adept at organising their time around multiple commitments and locations.
Technology enables this to work for everyone. I have in my firm a senior top grade matrimonial lawyer who runs major multi-million High Court cases in constant contact with her clients, and she does so while spending alternate weeks in Berlin where her children go to school. She is so integrated via technology to our communication and document systems that being in Berlin is just like being in the office upstairs. Because we, as, presently, an all women firm, had the vision and flexibility to support this way of working things out, we got one of the best lawyers in the market to join our team. Firms are losing out on the best lawyers, who are often women who have had children, through lacking this vision and flexibility.”
How has your personal brand/personal impact had an effect on your career?
“My style is very informal and practical, and I’m quite opinionated. Apparently I can be rather fierce. But I laugh with my clients, I visibly care about their cases and I tell it like it is. Clients seem to find that refreshing, and to find it easier to go through the traumas of family litigation with someone who behaves to them like a human being fighting for them. I think the essence of what you call a personal brand is learning that you’re most successful being yourself. But first you have to find out what that is!”
How do you think women in the legal profession are perceived by their colleagues and the public?
“At the Bar and in the City I found there was a lot of the kind of prejudice whereby if you were grey and plain and a bit dull you were likely to be taken more seriously than if you were attractive or fun. Sometimes women play to that and make themselves duller so that they look more competent. As Madonna once sang in What it Feels Like as a Girl, “When you’re trying hard to be your best, can you be a little less?” I think the trick is to get results, then trends and attitudes adapt. I think strong, successful, colourful women can be seen as rather scary. But in my business, which is both a very human business and highly intellectual at the cutting edge, both men and women still want them on their side.”
How do you prepare your clients in terms of their image and personal impact?
“For court, always the same, men or women: look as nice as you can, in a very classic, dignified, demure way. You don’t have to be bland, but you have to show respect.”
Your five top tips for women in the legal profession?
“Just do it. Start your own firm, push for that promotion, get back in the game if you’ve got out of it, and work at doing what you’re best at, in the way you’re best at it. If you think about it too much, you start to feel the fear. Just work out what you like, jump in, and don’t let anyone stop you. Some women enjoy working as jet-set City lawyers, some want to save the rainforest, and some want to sort out people’s personal dramas. Every time you do something you’re afraid of, and you succeed, you become that much more courageous.”