Although we’ve come so far, there is much work still to do

I studied law at university and after my Law Society Finals Examination started my articles at TV Edwards, a legal aid firm in East London, which tells you that it was many years ago. After qualification I worked as a family solicitor in London for a few years before returning to the north-east to be near family and joining David Grays. I continued as a family solicitor and then joined the partnership and later took on the role of managing partner. I now specialise in children law and most of my work is legal aid.

I am proud of the firm I lead and manage, the work we do for our clients and our continued commitment to legal aid and to training new generations of solicitors. I have never thought there is anything I cannot do in my career because I am a woman and tend not to look at any achievements through the prism of being female. I am a mother and I think that has added a valuable dimension to my work as a family and children solicitor.

Since I joined my firm there have been strong women in leadership positions which has sent a clear signal that leadership roles are open to women, and there is a majority of women working at my firm. I don’t always see the same picture when I look across other firms. I wonder if that is something to do with working in the fields of family law and legal aid and whether these areas are less appealing to men.

Over the years I have realised that the best way to achieve what you set out to is to play to your own strengths. I don’t think my strengths would necessarily be seen as being “typically male” but there is probably some debate to be had over what that means. Wikipedia offers “traits traditionally viewed as masculine in Western society include strength, courage, independence, leadership, and assertiveness” and I would take those attributes but for me “typically male” is not a compliment.

I have children who are now both away at university. I have managed the balance largely because my husband and I have always seen parenting as our equal responsibility and shared caring for them. I have sometimes noticed how there is an expectation that it is a mother rather than a father who will take time off work to care for a sick child. That was never the case in my family, rather we tried to figure out who was the most dispensable on any day of need. My husband is a teacher so school holidays were taken care of. Parental rights are much better now than when I had children. I returned to work when they were six months old and remembering trying to get them to take bottles and squirrelling myself away to quiet corners to express milk.

I went back to work part-time but had to work in the office on 4 days every week to deal with post, which seems an odd concept now we are all used to remote working. Email can be a curse but it is also a blessing for flexible working.

I have noticed a greater willingness by men rather than women to be vocal about pay rises. I also observe that there are more men than women who work in legal aid (although not in criminal law) which attracts lower salaries. I also think there are still a lot of challenges for those with caring responsibilities and those responsibilities still seem to more often fall to women. Although we’ve come so far, there is much work still to do.

Elspeth Thomson is Managing Partner at David Gray Solicitors LLP based in Newcastle