100 years of Women in Law - Meet Alisa Gray

16 Apr 2019
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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. This week, we're speaking to Alisa Gray, Director of Business Development at Kaplan Altior, about her experiences within the legal industry. Okay Alisa, let's get started... 

Can you please introduce yourself and your role at Kaplan Altior?
I’m Business Development Director for Kaplan Altior which involves creating new business and products as well as designing bespoke client training programmes.  When opportunity allows I also deliver some training courses – I really enjoy sharing my knowledge and it’s especially rewarding doing so with the many talented and enthusiastic lawyers who attend our courses.

How did you begin your career in the legal industry? Can you talk us through your journey?
My first love wasn’t the law but English literature, which I studied at Oxford.  I felt sure that I was going to be a journalist but as the world opened up to me and I started researching other careers, I decided law was the right path to follow.  I was lucky enough to obtain a training contract with a wonderful mid-sized firm in the City and learnt a great deal in those first two years of training, as well as meeting some truly inspiring people. 

On qualification I moved to a Magic Circle firm and specialised in Banking & Finance.  I was part of a fantastic team – we worked hard and played hard – but after five years and changes in my personal life I decided that partnership wasn’t for me and that I would change direction.  I took on a position at another Magic Circle firm to create a training programme for the global banking practice; there started my lateral move into learning and development.  Life changes again (the birth of my twin boys) meant that my career once more took a change of direction and after four years of staying at home to look after them, I started back working freelance for Kaplan QLTS, writing and assessing exams, and also taught at Kaplan Law School.  From there I transitioned into a business development role with Kaplan Altior. 

Alongside my career in law, I’ve recently re-trained as a business psychologist and hope to base my future research on psychological wellbeing in lawyers – law is an interesting profession on so many levels!

What has been your most significant career moment to date? And why?
It’s truly hard to pinpoint just one moment; there isn’t one pivotal moment that stands out as being the most significant, my career has been very organic.  I do, however, have lots of great memories most of which centre around being extremely challenged in the moment but having a real sense of achievement once the transaction was complete. As an associate I was lucky enough to be part of the team involved in Vodafone’s merger with Airtouch as well as its hostile takeover of Mannesmann – two huge transactions worth billions that strained the European debt markets.  I was involved in restructurings, leveraged buy-outs, securitisations and highly structured financings, all of which were demanding and rewarding in equal measure.  As a trainee I was given a lot of responsibility to run transactions – one of which was a public buy-back of shares.  The partner I was working with had a great deal of faith in my ability, so I just ran with it!  I think I was too naïve to feel truly overwhelmed and simply took it one step at a time.  I’m extremely thankful for that experience and think it taught me an approach that has stood me well over the years.  It calls to mind the old saying, “How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.

Do you think the legal industry has evolved since your career origins, and if so how?
Without wanting to sound like a dinosaur, when I started out, we didn’t even have email – so yes, the profession has definitely changed since I started out.  The speed with which we are expected to respond to clients and other lawyers has changed the way the profession operates.  Previously there was time to consider, construct and curate a response whereas now, lawyers are required to respond instantly.  Clearly there are benefits to receiving fast replies but mistakes are also made that way – be they in terms of strategy, law or inter-personal relations. 

It’s no longer enough to have a good understanding of the law and be able to apply it in a commercially sensible way, now lawyers have to be great managers, leaders, speakers, project managers, software specialists, media savvy mediators and more.  Law firms are now big business – in 2017 the profession contributed circa £26billion to the UK economy – and yet most law firms are run on traditional partnership structures where lawyers are not only responsible for delivering sound legal advice but also business and practice development, negotiating fee agreements, managing budgets and, in some cases, large teams of people from IT to catering personnel.     

As a woman in the legal industry, have you ever faced barriers or discrimination? If so, please elaborate.
Not overtly no, but then perhaps that’s worse – the unsaid is often more difficult to deal with.  Or at least if it was said at the time, it didn’t seem outrageously out of place in terms of societal norms.  The credibility of women in law has changed since I started out, back then we were all accustomed to a certain amount of sexism.  For example, I know of one place where women above a size 10 were told not to wear stripes or trousers!  Curiously I remember we all laughed at the time, not quite knowing what else to do but looking back, it spoke volumes about how women were viewed (quite literally) in the office.

There were certainly times when I was the only woman in a meeting full of men and I would be conscious of the higher pitch of my voice and that men would easily talk over me.  Networking and business development was also more difficult as a woman.  Post transaction drinks with colleagues and clients would involve lengthy discussions about football, rugby and golf and could sometimes end in dubious bars.  None of it was meant as an affront, far from it, I was considered “one of the boys” but then that says it all.  The terms people would use for women in the office, especially the few female partners that then existed, also signalled a latent sexism that pervaded at the time.  Tough women negotiators were “ball-breakers”, highly organised and professional women were “bossy”, more sensitive people managers were, “fluffy” and anyone who was stressed was “a bit prickly”.  None of these terms were used for men, who were “ruthless”, “impressive” and “leaders”.

Having said that,I think the people I worked with endeavoured to be truly meritocratic in their approach, from work allocation to conducting client meetings.  For example, I was most often spared the classic coffee making role that many of my female peers found themselves given at meetings.  It might seem small but at the time that was pretty forward thinking!

Do you think the role of women has changed in the legal industry during the course of your career? If so, how?
I think it’s been a stealth movement but yes, it has changed.  Each year since 1990 more women have qualified as lawyers than men and as of 2017 women lawyers outnumber men in the profession.  As a result I think that people (both clients and other lawyers) are more accustomed to seeing women lawyers and familiarity in itself is a way of breaking down prejudice and barriers. 

I think women today expect more support in juggling career and home life than I did.  I was less questioning of why it should be me to take a step-back from my career when events in my personal life meant that things had to change than I think most millennial women are today.  Although having said that only 28% of partnership positions are currently held by women and of those that do make partnership, it’s typically in the less lucrative practice areas and within smaller law firms.  Given the number of women entering the profession and the gulf at the top in terms of representation there’s clearly still a long way to go in terms of true gender equality.

How do you think organisations like Kaplan Altior can help encourage diversity within the legal industry?
Raising awareness is fundamental to encouraging change – no-one listens unless you speak up.  As an education provider we are in a great position to help encourage gender equality, challenge old assumptions and raise awareness of unconscious bias.  I like to think we do that through our course content, eradicating stereotyped examples and questions from our materials, role modelling success through the dynamic women tutors that run many of our courses as well as our specialist unconscious bias training that we run online.

How do you think the legal profession as a whole can encourage wider diversity, particularly in more senior roles?
I think many firms are currently trying to do just that but are finding it difficult to achieve.  In part I think it’s a function of the partnership structure of many firms and the “up or out” culture which pervades the business model.  As more male lawyers decide to vote with their feet and join alternative business structures, accountancy firms and in-house legal teams then I think senior management within the law firms will start to consider alternative career pathways, alongside partnership, which might encourage top talent (both male and female) to stay.

Affirmative action to help women progress is often viewed rather suspiciously, by men as unfair advancement and by women as tokenism.  Gender equality in the profession will, I believe, only really change when people truly embrace it as a people issue rather than just a “women’s” issue.

As a business psychologist gender inequality is an area in which I’m particularly interested and in my future research I hope to add insight and generate possible solutions to the problem.

If you could give a woman entering the industry one piece of advice, what would you say?
My pearl of wisdom would be, “don’t be so hard on yourself”.  The demands of the job are tough in themselves without you being tough on yourself too.  It’s important to keep things in perspective, try not to get overwhelmed when work is challenging and remember that work, just like change, happens incrementally, one step at a time.

In fact, my advice isn’t gender specific – it’s a message to my brothers as well as my sisters.

 What does the 100 years of women in law celebrations mean to you?
It’s a chance to reflect on how far we’ve come and how much further there is still yet to go.  We have to celebrate the milestones on the journey, they’re hard won and well worth the effort.