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Cherie Blair Talks Gender Parity in Law

April 17, 2015, 7:37 PM

On April 16, Cherie Blair, an accomplished lawyer and arbitrator and wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, touched down in Manhattan to deliver the keynote address at the New York International Arbitration Center’s “Grand Central Forum.” The event at NYIAC provided a chance for the international arbitration community to meet and discuss trends.

In her keynote, Blair spoke at length about her career – how her husband Tony beat her out of a job early on and her difficulties finding employment as a woman – and about emerging trends in arbitration.

Below, Big Law Business posted a few excerpts, in which Blair described the progress women lawyers have made in her lifetime and also estimated how much more progress is needed before women will achieve parity.

The excerpt is lightly edited.

Blair: It’s a particular privilege to be in the same room as Judge [Judith] Kaye* . If I think that things were tough in the law when I started in the 1970s, well, Judge Kaye can tell you far better stories. I think that she and I would both agree that if anything has changed in our careers it would be the perception that women just don’t do law. In particular, that women are by no means advocates, is something that was a very real perception once upon a time.

When I started at law school, my very distinguished professor at Cambridge came out with a statement that if women were to be lawyers, then they had to be sensitive not to be barristers. Because he said, a woman’s voice did not travel as well as a man’s. Now, I hope most of you will realize I don’t have any trouble shouting. And my own thought was that [his wife] must have been a very understanding and quiet woman for him to think that a woman could not make her voice heard. Certainly, the young women lawyers in the room tonight would not find any such remark as that in their careers.

I was the first person in my family to go to any sort of a university at all. I came from a working class family. I’ve just been going through my grandfather’s papers … he was a miner in Nottingham. My other grandfather was a merchant seaman from the docks in Liverpool. None of them ever contemplated going to university. Both my mother and grandmother left school at 13 for various reasons. So for them to have any member of their family even go to university was a huge thing. And I was just lucky, I was quite a clever girl. And the nuns in my school gave me the impression that if I worked hard there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do. Though I have to say when I was 14, I did tell them I was going to be the first woman prime minister of Great Britain. I did get to number 10 Downing Street but not in the way I perhaps thought.

At the London School of Economics, where I came top, I came top of all the law departments in London, which is a boastful thing to say but is relevant to what I’m about to tell you — again the fact that I was a woman didn’t even cross my mind as being a problem. But then, I went to find myself a training place in a real law firm, or in this case a barrister’s chambers. Then, I discovered that it didn’t matter that I got the top of the bar finals across the whole country. There was a real problem with me getting a post anywhere at all, and that problem was my gender.

You would find people who would say to you ‘ Cherie, we just don’t take women in these chambers.’ Or, ‘We are very progressive, we take women. But we have a woman already.’ So they couldn’t possibly take another one, because what would happen if heaven forbid they both fell pregnant at the same time.

I did eventually find someone foolish enough to take me on. And at the end of my year’s training, for a barrister, he took me aside, and said ‘Cherie, there’s one post available here, but there are two contenders for the post. One of them is you and the other one is the boy. And of course, obviously we’re going to have to take the boy.’ To which I agreed, because obviously that’s what happened in the law: They took the boy, which was a bit unfair because even he accepted I was the better lawyer.

As it turned out, it was quite a bad choice for them too, because after seven years, that boy had gone on to do something else whereas here we are 36 years later and I’m still a lawyer. The boy, of course, as you mentioned, was Tony Blair, and we all know what he went on to do. But let me tell you he would not say he was a lawyer today. It just goes to show that to make assumptions about what women do, what men do is a dangerous thing.

Now, today, of course, look, here we come in a world where over half the undergraduates, the graduates in law school in my country, in your country, are women. Where we’re seeing more and more women having no problem getting a job as trainees in law firms. But there’s still a problem, isn’t there? There is still a problem. We know that like many other professions, women go in in large numbers, but they drop out in large numbers as well.

And I think recent research in relation to law firms in New York showed that in relation to women partners, if we’re going to wait for natural selection to make a difference to women that are going to become partners, it’s going to take until 2115 or something like that before you have parity in New York law firms in partners. Frankly guys, we can’t wait that long.

If we’re talking about that in law firms, I think we can say that coming into an arbitration practice, we do see a similar pattern going on. I think arbitration does have some way to catch up with the modern trends too.

* Kaye was the first woman to serve on New York’s highest court, where she was chief judge from 1993 to 2008. She is chair of the board at NYIAC, which is dedicated to promoting New York as a hub for international arbitration.

Photo courtesy of NYIAC.