A photographic project to inspire women lawyers provides lessons for addressing the gender imbalance in firms.

Overlooking the reception in the City office of CMS Cameron McKenna is a portrait of an imperious-looking Fiona Woolf, who this year became the second female lord mayor of London in the history of the office.

The display of girl power does not end there. The firm's corridors are adorned, not with pictures of stuffy men (ancient or extant), but impressive portraits of women – several sporting striking shoes with dangerously high heels.

The firm’s 'Athena Project' aims to highlight women who have achieved success within its ranks or among clients in sectors that tend to be dominated by men.

Photographer Leonora Saunders snapped the women whose stories and experience are intended to inspire others and redress the gender imbalance that remains within the law.

In their brief stories, presented alongside the portraits, common issues of gender bias - conscious or unconscious, the nature of legal work, and the difficulties balancing work with motherhood or other caring duties - emerge as the obvious reasons why women so often fall away or do not reach their potential.

Obvious these issues might be, but too little is done to tackle them and nurture the talent of hugely capable women – a loss not only to individual firms, but the profession as a whole.

Lessons can be learnt from the experience of the featured women.

Rita Lowe, the firm's head of banking and finance, says: ‘It is a simple fact that there are fewer women in higher positions, so you have got to accept that as a reality, understand why and identify what you can do (even, if only, in a very small way) to change that.’

Having a family with a successful career, she says, requires a ‘well-organised balancing act’ and supportive colleagues. Lowe manages it, not because she is superwoman, but because she has a supportive and flexible husband who she admits ‘is a much better cook and does much more in the home’ than she.

 ‘There is no doubt that getting to this stage of a career is not easy. You do need to make a lot of sacrifices, and I do wonder in retrospect if I made the right choices.’

Sarah Blomfield, managing director for legal and compliance at Rothschild, says she has managed because she is able to work flexibly. ‘If I leave for a parents’ evening, for example, no one will be tut-tuting when I leave, and they know that I can be reached online afterwards.’

The lack of role models makes it hard, she suggests. ‘There is a lack of women high up who have ‘been there, done that’ from whom younger women can draw experience.’

Louise Wallace, partner in the firm's corporate team, shares the experience of being one of few women in her field. ‘It’s still not unusual to walk into the room and find that I’m the only woman there, which I think is sad, but it’s getting a lot better.’

Having achieved success, she strives to encourage her colleagues. ‘I like to build confidence in young female lawyers who work with me, because so many women lack the confidence to go forward. When I see potential in a young lawyer I’ll tell her: “you are a future partner – you’re going to make it”. I try to help put that idea into their psyche.'

Joanne Wheeler, partner in the telecommunications, media and technology team, is also keen to be good role model, particularly for her three daughters. ‘I don’t want to be the best female lawyer; I want to be the best lawyer in the subject, while keeping the human touch.’

She tries not to make the lack of women in her field an issue. ‘I just get on with it. My armour, if ever I need it is know my stuff and do my best, whilst being myself.’

The portrait just before entering the partners’ dining room deliberately includes a child: Helen Rodwell, head of corporate in central and eastern Europe and managing partner in Prague, holding her infant son Harry. She speaks of her guilt at being a working mum and the supportive advice given to her by a Budapest banking partner: ‘just get used to it; they’re not going to go away’.

‘It was such fantastic advice – to know that my feelings are normal, other working mothers have the same feelings and they’re not going to go away.’

Lesley Wan heads the corporate real estate legal team at Lloyds banking Group. Organisations, she says, need to implement a system to identify talented women and nurture and develop them. ‘We need to remove the unconscious bias and educate colleagues about the issues that women face in the work place,’ she says.

Karen Clayton, general counsel at National Grid, favours women’s networks and ‘aspirational targets’ – quotas, but with more flexibility. ‘Sometimes you need to swing the pendulum to actually get it to the mid-point.’

The ast word goes to Woolf. She notes how things have changed for the better since she started out, recalling when some firms did not let women to do business law. But, she says, it’s not all up the firms; women must play their part too: ‘There is no point in a woman lawyer thinking she is a victim. Women are responsible for their own career development. What I say is get luck, say yes, but it means making your own luck! And getting out of your comfort zone.’

These women prove that breaking that glass ceiling is possible, but it shouldn't still be so hard and so unusual. Firms need to take an honest look at their practices and manage all their talent better. Or is the old guard afraid that the women will outshine them as they come bursting through that wretched ceiling in their high high heels?