100 years of Women in Law – Meet Andrea Spears

To celebrate 100 years of women in law, we’re curating a series of interviews with women operating within the profession to understand what this anniversary means to them. We’ll be hearing how they think the industry has progressed and we’re starting with Andrea Spears, Head of Legal Professional Development at Altior. Over to you Andrea…

Can you please introduce yourself and your role at Altior?
Hello, I’m Andrea Spears, Head of Legal Professional Development at Kaplan. I work with law firms and corporates to develop and promote professional and technical skills training programmes, through in house, online and public courses. I also have the pleasure of delivering training programmes on behalf of Altior and Leadership and Professional Development.

How did you begin your career in the legal industry? Can you talk us through your journey?
I didn’t have what you might call a traditional entry into the legal profession. I didn’t do a law degree; my degree was in International Business with French and German. However, I’ve always had an interest in business and the commercial sector and when I undertook one of my core modules in law, this sparked a real interest to specialise in this area after university.

So, when I completed my degree, I undertook a GDL (conversion course), then spent one year at law school before starting my training contract at a commercial law firm in Fareham. On qualification, I moved to London and I qualified as a corporate solicitor. I stayed in this role for about two and a half years then moved to the corporate transactional team at another law firm, where I stayed for around five years.

As my career progressed, I became a senior associate, which meant supervising trainees and newly qualified solicitors within the team. I found that I really enjoyed the development and support elements of my role. This is why at eight years post qualification, I made the decision to move to the College of Law, where I was responsible for developing the new LPC course for a global law firm; particularly focusing on the commercial modules.  I worked closely with various practice groups within the firm to develop a course which was specifically tailored to their business and their future trainee solicitors.

Once that was completed, I then moved to two years later to start up Law School, delivering on both the LPC and GDL and working with client law firms to deliver tailored training programmes for their future trainees. I progressed through the law school and by the end of my time there, I was the LPC course leader. Finally, I transitioned across to Altior where I am today and took on my new role in addition to working with Leadership and Professional Development, where I deliver legal and skills training for corporates and other professional services firms.

What has been your most significant career moment to date? And why?
I think there are two and the first I experienced when I was a solicitor. As a newly qualified solicitor sitting in on meetings with various stakeholders from our law firm, clients and external advisors, the one thing I was always in awe of was how it was all pulled together: seeing the partner and senior associate co-ordinate everything to reach the end goal. When I started my career, I wasn’t always looking towards the end point of partnership and very much admired those leading the transactions. However, I ascended the career ladder, and eventually this became the role I achieved. I met my initial goal and that was a truly significant achievement for me.

The second ‘significant career moment’ I experienced after moving into the learning and development field. When I started out in my career, I loved the work I did but I never really had in my mind that I wanted to be a partner. When I came to take my next steps in the training and development sector, I felt as though I had come full circle. I vividly remember being sat on the LPC and then all of a sudden, I found myself in a position to develop a tailored LPC to a magic circle law firm and write and mark assessments I had once dreaded taking!  I was helping to build confidence and skills needed in that professional environment; drawing on my experiences, and for me, that was a pivotal career moment.

Do you think the legal industry has evolved since your career origins, and if so how?
Definitely so. When I started in my career in the mid- 90s, in my specialist area, the corporate transactional field, there were far fewer female solicitors in the profession and there was certainly a gender imbalance. I think as a result of that, we as the females in the team didn’t feel that we were able to be entirely ourselves and used our energy to fit in and be like the others, instead of recognising our differences and strengths. We didn’t have the confidence to be ourselves, which I feel was a great shame. We spent a great deal of time trying to fit in and I believe that in that respect, there’s been a big shift. When I host training now, the mix between men and women is far more balanced – there’s even more women getting into the profession than there were previously from trainee to associate level.

As a woman in the legal industry, have you ever faced barriers or discrimination? If so, please elaborate.
Yes, I have. For example, when meeting a client for the first time, there may be three representatives from the firm in the room. Yet, there’s an expectation or something we impose on ourselves as women to always get up and make the coffee or take on the hospitality role. I found this led to clients giving me a strange look when I then sat at the table because there was the presumption that I must be the secretary! Undeniably, I should have been bold about my role and introduced myself unapologetically, but I didn’t feel as if that was the norm for women in the profession.

Aside from this, relationship building proved difficult. For example, networking opportunities didn’t appear to be as open to female colleagues as they were to men. Ultimately, this comes down to a lack of diversity in some of the heavily male dominated sectors our clients worked in, for example, private equity. Many networking opportunities were centred around typically male dominated sports – think rugby, football or golf. This made it difficult to develop relationships, not only within the firm, but also to build trusting relationship with clients as we didn’t experience the same ‘bonding’ exercises. There always seemed to be a discomfort there in that respect, and I felt as though we struggled to find our place in this environment.

Additionally, throughout my career, I’ve had personal gender bias experiences in the workplace which have made me uncomfortable, from comments about my clothing to being referred to in meetings as the ‘pretty face’ in the room. I have also seen trainees who have been put in uncomfortable positions, simply for wanting to fit in. Sometimes, it could feel very much like a ‘boys club’ and women were not always treated as equals unfortunately.

Do you think the role of women has changed in the legal industry during the course of your career? If so, how?
Recognition of diversity has changed, and therefore the role of women has changed dramatically, especially during my time in the profession. I think the examples I have mentioned simply would not happen now, and if they did, I believe more women would have the confidence in themselves or they would have strong support within their firms to have a frank conversation. Women who raise any issues are no longer viewed as troublemakers or the brunt of the joke. There is a real recognition of diversity now; it’s not just paid lip service, which has helped to make women feel more included in the profession. As a whole, this has encouraged women to take on more senior roles, reaching higher positions within firms. I believe that there has been a cultural shift – law firms now recognise the importance of diverse teams for transactions. After all, no two people are the same. The more balance in the teams, the wider the skillset.

I also believe that the role of women has changed as the sectors we work within embrace a diversity agenda. For example, if a firm is trying to secure a new client, they’re likely to ask what diversity initiatives are in place within the firm. There is a wider recognition that diversity is a good thing, and the only way from here is up.

However, we can’t ignore the fact many women also drop out of the profession. In larger firms, only 29% of partners are women. This gap has slowly narrowed since 2014, but it’s still there. Lower stages of careers reflect diversity, with 59% of non-partner solicitors being women. There’s still work to be done here – both by the individuals in their overall confidence levels, and by firms and the structures they put in place to support team members.

When I left my last law firm, I had made an informed decision to go into the training sector.   However, I can’t deny the fact that this was supported by my growing concern that I may not be able to best serve my clients, if I was looking to take the next step in my personal life. This applies to men and women, but I found myself asking, ‘am I offering the best service to my clients? Am I doing the best I can?’ Self-doubt is a major barrier and has been built upon societal expectations. As women in particular within the professional services sector, I believe this is a challenge yet to be tackled.

How do you think organisations like Altior can help encourage diversity within the legal industry?
I think organisations like Altior will be pivotal to addressing unconscious bias within professional organisations. This is why we are running courses that challenge whether we have biases; as most of us believe we don’t have any. We have created interactive sessions to challenge these thoughts, helping to create an immersive experience where for example, our process of looking at CVs is put to the test. This enables people to recognise that we all have biases and once we’re aware of them, we are able to address them – we’ve found that experiential training is a powerful tool in doing so.

We have also introduced diversity training, which in itself is a good starting point but can only take you so far – there needs to be wider training and recognition within organisations to truly embrace diversity. By highlighting key issues and bringing them to the forefront, it helps to develop people’s self-awareness.

We also have a mixture of trainers on hand to help deliver training, with as many male trainers as there are female trainers. Typically, there’s an expectation that a greater volume of trainers will be women, especially those who have left careers in the profession, but our wide range of trainers proves that this isn’t necessarily the case and I’m particularly proud of the diversity within our faculty.

How do you think the legal profession as a whole can encourage wider diversity, particularly in more senior roles?
I believe we need to address diversity in its entirety, not just as a tick box exercise. Unconscious biases are deeply embedded in society and we must work to eradicate these. I also believe that L&D initiatives can be implemented to ensure that when law firms have talent, they make sure they don’t lose it.

This can be done through mentoring to help combat any self-doubt and confidence issues holding you back. Having an executive coach on hand is a fantastic thing that firms are now doing to help encourage wider diversity and I can see this becoming the norm.

If you could give a woman entering the industry one piece of advice, what would you say?
Be confident about your abilities and what you can bring to the table. Don’t be afraid to be yourself because with that comes huge value, regardless of the ratio of men-to-women on your team. You have abilities not just on the technical side but on the skills side as well. We’re all bursting with energy and enthusiasm, wanting to develop and learn. Harness this instead of worrying about fitting in or being the same as everyone else in the team – celebrate and promote yourself. 

What does the 100 years of women in law celebrations mean to you?
If we look at where we were at the start of the 20th century, we didn’t even have the vote, but now women are partners in huge global law firms and have really been given a voice and a place. Even in my career, which is short in the grand scheme of things, we’ve seen major changes and I can only see it getting better. However, there’s still work to be done to further embed equality and see these levels of diversity become the norm around the globe.

If you’d like to get involved with this interview series, contact us on infoaltior@barbri.com or call us on: 02920 451 000

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