ON THE EVE OF THE SIXTH WOMAN LAWYER FORUM, LINDA TSANG EXAMINES ITS RELEVANCE IN THE NEW MILLENNIUMOnce a year, the legal profession is faced with the difficult 'w' word.

On 1 April, the Woman Lawyer Forum will reach its sixth year, with a range of speakers including Cherie Booth QC, Minister for the Cabinet Mo Mowlam MP, and Germaine Greer.But in the 21st century, with women lawyers set to head both the International Bar Association and the American Bar Association, should there be a separate forum for women lawyers, or does a separate event only serve to factionalise them?And, given the usual sexist views that men 'discuss matters' and women 'just talk', another 'w' word has also come up -- and it is the one already raised by one of its delegates at an earlier conference -- 'whingefest'.The founder and organiser of the Woman Lawyer Forum, barrister Margaret McCabe strenuously denies that it is just an opportunity to whinge.

She says: 'The aim has been to look at the role of women in the profession in a practical way, year in year out, and take action in between to put what has been discussed into practice.

I am a pragmatist, so it's a practical way of dealing with change and changing the culture.'This year's forum will include a Hall of Fame covering the progress of women lawyers over the past century, and looking back over that time she comments: 'There is still a long way to go.'With hindsight, the forum has had at least one impact, which is still resonating six years later.

The first gathering has already gone into Law Society history as the meeting when solicitor and Law Society Council member Eileen Pembridge questioned the then president Charles Elly about what he would do if there was sexual harassment in the Law Society.

He replied that he would ask whoever it was to resign.

That later led to the then vice-president John Young standing down, although he denied the allegations against him.

A year later, Martin Mears, who had become Law Society president after an election triggered by the resignation, was the centre of a storm over his claim that it was 'a nonsense and a fiction to assert that there was any kind of prejudice against women anywhere in the public sector or quasi-public sector.

The exact opposite is the case'.Looking back at the forum itself, Ms McCabe says: 'I did not know that such a conference would touch such a raw nerve.

What I am proudest of over the last five years has been the solidarity of the whole network of role models in the legal profession that has been built up.'As to the immediate future, she argues that women can be dynamic leaders.

They should take some of the responsibility to lead the profession and be positive role models for both the men and women coming up in the profession after them.

And this is not just in the UK, but also in Europe, where she has just returned from launching the European Women Lawyers' Association (see [2000] Gazette, 23 March, 6).Ms McCabe sees the UK Woman Lawyer Forum as 'an unofficial trade union', but it is not the only chance for women lawyers to network and brainstorm.

Other women lawyers have been active in the business and legal worlds.

City firm Berwin Leighton set up the Adelaide Group for the firm's women clients and lawyers to meet up quarterly.Berwin Leighton commercial property partner Candice Blackwood, who chaired the group's most recent meeting, attended the first Woman Lawyer Conference in 1995, but has not been back.

She says: 'As the only female partner at my previous firm, I went looking for mutual support and practical information and advice.

I did get some support, but it wasn't quite what I expected, and I felt that I had got more out of other organisations and conferences.'Her view is that six years on, the issues raised are being addressed and could be dealt with in a wider forum, such as the Law Society annual conference.

She does agree that matters like the 'Queen Bee' syndrome -- where women don't want others to reach the top and usurp their position -- and flexible working did need to be highlighted.

But she points out that many firms are now addressing the work-life issue and flexible working, and there is even legislation in force to deal with getting the right b alance, such as parental leave.Christine Kings, practice manager at London's Doughty Street Chambers, argues that there is a future for such a forum: 'There is a good argument for having a woman lawyer forum.

There is a lot of sexism in the profession and there should be a way to bring women together.

You don't need sessions aimed at men or specialist sessions on law -- you can get those elsewhere.

It should look at how to manage your practice when you want to have children, and how to prepare for silk or going to the bench.'Others -- even men -- are also positive about a conference organised for and by women.

Jones & Warner partner David Warner attended the Woman Lawyer Forum in 1998 and 1999 and says he was 'impressed by the high calibre of the panels and also the participants, and also -- and this is not intended to be patronising -- by the reasoned and positive nature and atmosphere of the whole debate.

I didn't know quite what to expect -- it could well have become a vehicle for extremism, but there was no sign of that.'He adds: 'From my perspective, it made me realise what a waste is going on in the profession with the lack of structure for women to return to work after having children, and that in an increasingly competitive profession, women can sometimes be trampled underfoot more than men.'There is also the issue of preaching to the converted, obviously in the case of women, but also with the few men that have are already likely to be converts to the cause.

'Perhaps it would be better to have more policymakers and changers, who may be hostile or resistant, attending so that they can see another perspective,' Mr Warner suggests.Generally, he says: 'Women are so integral to society that it is difficult to say that they are a minority -- in fact at the lower end of the profession, they are the majority -- and they have a real role to play.' But as to when women will be so integrated that such a forum will no longer be needed, he is less positive: 'It's a long way off.'Ironically, the founder of the forum is in broad agreement with Mr Warner: 'I hope that when my daughter -- who is 11 years old -- has grown up and is also a lawyer, there will no longer be a need for a woman lawyer forum, but I am not entirely convinced of that.

Perhaps I am being too idealistic.'THERE IS A GROWING BAND OF WOMEN RAINMAKERS, AND THEY ARE HUNGRY FOR BUSINESS, REPORTS ANNE MIZZI'Lawyers often fall into three categories -- finders, minders and grinders,' says Stephen Mostyn-Williams, an English partner at US firm Shearman & Sterling and a known rainmaker in the banking sector.

If you make rain, you are a finder, he explains.The rainmaker is the glamorous face of the legal practice, making contacts, bringing in business and looking after clients.

The rapid growth of women lawyers in the profession means that an increasing number are breaking through the ranks to join the upper echelons of private practice -- the equity partnership.

But are they bringing in business?One well-known male rainmaker says he is staggered to hear that there is such a thing as women rainmakers: 'I had never heard of them.

Where are they?' he asks.But a quick run through the well-known names proves there is a case for the growing band.

And there is now even an association for them to join.As usual, the idea has come from the US.

The American Bar Association has a highly-organised Women Rainmakers Network and will launch a UK branch in May (see [2000] Gazette, 23 March, 6).Juliet Blanch, a litigation partner and head of international arbitration and marine insurance groups at Norton Rose, says she caught the bug early on: 'I realised at quite a junior level that if I wanted to get partnership, it was essential to build up my own client base.'This is obviously not just a woman's issue.

Generating business is something that all private practices must keep an eye on.

Jacky Kelly, a partner at Weil Gotshal & Manges joined the US firm from Clifford Chance in 1996 when it set up a London office.

'It was a firm which wasn't well known.

The name wasn't even familiar,' she says, making it fertile ground for the rainmaker.Ms Kelly set about raising awareness of the firm, which included getting press coverage.

She sold the firm with an angle -- a US firm in London doing securitisation deals.

She then scaled back activities with clients who did not look as if they would come through, but keeps in touch with the industry by attending conferences.

'It takes time, but it gets results,' she says.

'Nothing beats doing a transaction and doing it well.'Mr Mostyn-Williams says rainmakers must immerse themselves in the sector and spend time with clients.

'At the stronger-branded firms, it is much easier to get new business.

Rainmaking is about generating business through networks, finding opportunities and building personal relationships.

The true rainmakers will be spinning out opportunities for others.

They tend to be very big on devotion to clients.'Ms Blanch agrees.

She says to make rain, a lawyer needs to be totally and utterly committed: 'In addition, not only do clients want sound legal advice, they also want someone whom they can be comfortable with, trust and who will absorb themselves fully on what can often be very emotive issues.'Rainmaking techniques can vary between sectors.

Corporate and banking lawyers may be able to trade on their last deal, while litigators have to do a bit more schmoozing.

And as for property lawyers, the more entrepreneurial types are known for working hard and playing hard.US firm Arnold & Porter's London managing partner, Fern O'Brian, is a litigator.

She says: 'Litigation requires a kind of business development, which involves a lot of effort and a lot of networking.

What works in different markets depends on the audience.'White & Case's head of dispute resolution, Margaret Cole, says litigation is a fairly difficult area to market directly to clients, so when she joined the US firm from City practice Stephenson Harwood, she had to network within the partnership.

She targeted areas which were most likely to throw up disputes, such as project finance.

Her advice to prospective rainmakers is: 'Be visible in the firm so you are put in front of clients.'Berwin Leighton partner Claire Milton, makes rain for the firm's property department.

'The property industry is quite sociable and it's important to be part of the industry.'But she emphasises that solicitors have to be able to deliver: 'They are not going to instruct you and continue to instruct you because you are great fun at a party.'The downside is that often pressure on women lawyers to socialise with clients may back-fire.

'Working long hours and in intense situations with male clients can, on occasions, result in unwanted attention and awkward situations for female lawyers,' Ms Blanch says.'But while this may be a fact of life, the ground rules are simple: your role is that of legal counsel so don't get involved; make your views clear, but be polite; stay in control; and always retain your sense of humour.'The business or 'power' lunch is part of many professionals' routine, but in so me cases an invitation to dinner or drinks can be misconstrued as a 'come on'.

One female rainmaker who asked not to be named says these types of misunderstandings are more usual when liaising with clients from different cultures.

She says: 'To avoid this, I always ensure I socialise as a group unless I feel confident of the client and his intentions.'Jennie Gubbins, one of the four main rainmakers at Trowers & Hamlins, has found a simple solution: 'My main strategy is to brandish my wedding ring around.

I also talk about my husband.'Like other woman rainmakers, the corporate partner claims that women have some advantages over men: 'In many ways it's an advantage as long as you start off assuming it's an advantage.

As a woman you stand out more.

If you want to make your mark and are up against men in grey suits, you are more memorable as a woman.

But you need a certain degree of confidence to carry it off.'But she says the biggest problem for women is juggling work and family life.

Ms O'Brian agrees: 'It's an issue for everyone -- for men as well as for women.

But the issue doesn't fall under business development.

Business development tends to be on top of your day to day other work, but it's an integral part of a practice.

You need to take steps to maintain a balanced approach.'The horror stories of women giving birth during deals and heading back to work the next day, or women partners who communicate with their children via post-it notes on the fridge reveal the heartbreak behind the idea of juggling.But men are also demanding their rights.

Ms Blanch's husband was a four-year qualified lawyer at Slaughter and May who quit to become a house husband when she gave birth to their first child.

She says: 'This makes it far easier for me to be able to socialise with clients in the evening or travel, as many of my clients are abroad.'And when women socialise with clients, they refuse to be pigeon holed in the types of events they will organise for them.

And they take an ambivalent view of the golf course.

Ms Milton says: 'I don't think there is a lot of work generated from the old boy, hearty back-slapping network.

Clients have a much more sophisticated and business-like approach.' She suggests becoming involved in industry bodies, and sometimes takes clients out for a wine-tasting evening.Ms Gubbins has taken clients to Wimbledon and the children's theatre she is involved in, adding: 'One thing we have done is breakfast at the Royal Academy, followed by a walk around the exhibition.

Clients like that -- it's very jolly.'Ms Blanch has a novel plan to take clients on a ride on the London Eye in May and has also treated clients to a range of activities including a James Bond-themed evening, drinks, lunches, suppers and bowling.

Other sporting outings have included horse and greyhound racing and go-karting.Ms Kelly says she is open-minded about the activities she would organise for clients.

But admitted she prefers ball games, giving the simple explanation: 'I like football and rugby.

I like sport a lot and so do my clients.'In the US, women lawyers have taken clients out to cookery and creative classes and spa weekends, among other things.

But Ms O'Brian denies it is possible to make generalisations between differences between the sexes in terms of business development style.She says: 'Some women go to golf courses like the men do, but there are a great variety of other activities you can be involved in.'Ms Kelly says that ultimately, it boils down to having confidence: 'There is always going to be a market for people who know what they are doing.' And, she adds, there is the job satisfaction: 'When you get the work it is really gratifying.

You get a good feeling.'NEIL ROSE DELVES INTO THE HISTORY BOOKS TRACES THE METEORIC RISE OF THE WOMAN SOLICITOR IN THE 20TH CENTURYIn the 'List of gentlemen applying to be admitted as solicitors' in the Gazette of November 1922, there is one entry of note: 'Morrison, (Miss) Carrie.' At 34, Ms Morrison was the first woman to become a solicitor but no other mention of this momentous event was made.The following month, under the quietly-amended title of 'List of people applying to be admitted as solicitors', the Gazette recorded the entry of Maud Crofts and Mary Pickup, while a month after that Mary Sykes became the fourth woman.

The apocryphal story is told that the four -- who had all taken the November 1922 law finals -- raced each other down Chancery Lane for the title of the first woman solicitor.

The race was recreated by the Association of Women Solicitors in 1997 to mark its 75th anniversary.Until the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 came into force, it had for many years been considered inappropriate for women to work in a profession where they might come up against such un-ladylike matters as murder, rape and grave-robbing.

But much as happens today, events in north America influenced developments here as the women lawyer movement grew across the Atlantic.

This led, in Ontario, Canada in 1891, to Clara Brett Martin becoming the first woman in the British Empire to qualify as a lawyer.

By 1914, at least 10,000 women were practising in the US.The UK fight began in 1879, when the first woman applied to the Law Society to sit the solicitors' exams.

The application was dismissed, as was Margaret Hall's in 1900 when she applied to the Law Society of Scotland.

Ms Hall took her case to the courts, where the judge ruled that an Act of Parliament was required in order to allow women to become solicitors.Twelve years later, four women -- one of whom was Maud Crofts -- mounted a test case in England.

The court came to a similar conclusion as in Scotland, citing the common law rule that women should not hold public office, which the judge said included being a solicitor.

But significantly, costs were not awarded against the women and the tide was turned.

In early 1914, a Solicitors (Qualification of Women) Bill made it through the House of Lords but did not survive the Commons.

Despite lobbying from the Committee to Obtain the Opening of the Legal Profession to Women, the Lloyd George government pulled back from passing a law which might have taken jobs from solicitor soldiers then fighting in the First World War.Eventually the 1919 Act was passed, removing disqualification on grounds of sex from any public function, civil or judicial post or admission to any civil profession or incorporated society.

The Gazette recorded that six women lodged articles of clerkship for registration at once and within four years, the Law Society's ruling Council found itself having to designate a number of rooms at Chancery Lane, including the coal store, for conversion into ladies' cloakrooms.Ms Crofts, the daughter of a barrister, articled with a firm whose senior partner, Sir Henry Trower, was a past president of the Law Society.

She became a family law expert, writing 'Women under English law' in 1925 and later becoming the solicitor for the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child.

She died in 1963, aged 74.

Ms Morrison's was a more volatile career, seeing her work at a string of firms which i ncluded a spell in practice with her husband.

Even after he left her and married his secretary, they continued to work together for a while, despite the public humiliation.

Ms Morrison was known for her work with good causes, and was the first woman solicitor to handle a divorce under the Poor Persons Rules, a forerunner of legal aid.

She was also the first woman to read a paper to a Law Society meeting.

She died in 1950, aged 62.At 25, Mary Sykes was the youngest of the four women, and articled to and practised with her father in Huddersfield until she set up her own firm in 1930.

Mary E Sykes & Co continued for 50 years until it merged with Ramsdens in 1980.

She died a year later.

Birmingham-based Mary Pickup, who received the highest marks of the four in the law finals, was the only one to set up her own firm upon qualification.

Having articled with her husband, she rejoined him in 1936 at Redferns, a firm still in existence.

She died two years later.Of course, it was not easy for the first women solicitors.

An article in the feminist newspaper The Women's Leader in 1923 cautioned that 'at the present time, no woman solicitor would be wise to attempt to start a practice alone'.

In 1941, the arrival of the first woman solicitor in Cheltenham, Janet Mack, warranted an article in the local newspaper and a male counterpart complained about the publicity.

As a result, Ms Mack was without a practising certificate for eight weeks.One woman solicitor recalls how in the 1950s, a firm advertised in the Gazette for a woman solicitor.

When she applied, she was told: 'We want a woman because there are no prospects in this job.' In the 1960s, one woman was told that she didn't need a pay rise because her husband earned a lot of money, while in the 1970s, Anne Fowler placed two advertisements seeking employment in the Gazette, identical except that one of them disclosed that she was a woman.

The unisex advertisement received 17 replies, the other just two.The number of women solicitors was not accurately recorded before the war, but is not thought to have been much more than 100.

By the late 1950s, there were around 350 women solicitors compared with almost 18,000 men, about 2% of the profession.

By 1967, the figure was inching towards 3% with 619 women in a profession of more than 22,000 men.

In 1977, there were 2,408 women out of 32,812 (7.3%); ten years later there were in excess of 8,800 women in a profession nearing 49,000 (18%).The real explosion came in the next ten years: in 1997, more than 31,000 women were on the Roll, 34.4% of the total.

This is set to rise further still as around 57% of legal practice course students are women.

Nationally though, 25% of partners are women and Gazette research earlier this year showed that in the country's 100 largest firms, only 17% of partners are women (see [2000] Gazette, 20 January, 3).These figures should only increase over the next ten years, as the women flooding into the profession make their way up the career ladder.

Long gone are the days of 1925, when the Hastings Observer, reporting on the local licensing sessions, could think of nothing more to say about solicitor Dorothy Morgan's first appearance than to note that her black handbag made for 'a delightfully feminine note amongst the official-looking documents'.JOHN PAUL WAITE ON THE BENEFITS AND LIMITATIONS OF LAST YEAR'S MATERNITY AND PARENTAL LEAVE REGULATIONSLast year saw radical changes in the law designed to make it easier for women and, for the first time, men to combine the demands of work with family responsibili ties.

However, the reforms do not address one of women solicitors' principal concerns; namely the right to return to work part-time after maternity leave.

It remains the case that, while refusal of part-time work may be held to be discriminatory, many firms will avoid liability by objectively justifying it on the basis of operational requirements.The Maternity and Parental Leave Regulations 1999 give both mothers and fathers of children born after 15 December 1999 the right to 13 weeks unpaid leave in the first five years of their child's life.

The fact that the leave is unpaid detracts somewhat from its impact.

Pre-existing maternity rights have been strengthened and there is also a new right to time off for family emergencies contained in the Employment Relations Act 1999.

All these rights apply to employees only, but can be incorporated in to a private partnership agreement whether in similar or altered form.The regulations set out minimum rights from which there can be no contracting out.

Firms are encouraged, however, in the interests of flexibility, to form agreements with employees over how the rights will be implemented.

If firms do not currently have a comprehensive agreement with staff dealing with maternity and parenting rights, now is the time to draft one.

It is a myth that those without agreements get off more lightly in employment tribunals -- the reverse is usually true.-- Parental leaveEligibility: Any employee with parental responsibility for a child qualifies, provided he or she has been employed for at least 12 months by the firm.

'Parental responsibility' usually includes both natural parents, even if they are separated and one is the full-time carer.

Conversely, a co-habitee of the natural mother, who is unrelated to the child although jointly caring for it, has no parental leave rights in respect of that child unless there is a court order granting him residence or parental responsibility.

The purpose of parental leave must be to care for the child in question.

Parents cannot pack their children off to the grandparents while they go on a cruise.Duration: The right is to a minimum of 13 weeks leave in respect of each child under five years old, with that entitlement extending to each parent.

This means a couple with two children under five have a right to 26 weeks' parental leave each in the relevant five-year period.

The 13-week entitlement cannot be taken all at once, unless otherwise agreed.

It must be taken in chunks of between one and four weeks a year, the exact figure to be determined by the employee.

Leave can only be taken for a period of more than four weeks (or less than one) if there is an agreement to that effect.

In respect of the lower figure, it may actually suit some firms to give their employees the chance to take less than a week at a time.

Parents who work part-time are entitled to reduced leave on a pro-rata basis.

All rights to parental leave are extinguished upon the child's fifth birthday, regardless of whether the full entitlement has been used.

It is not possible for one partner to allot their share of parental leave to the other.Notice: An employee must give 21 days' notice of intention to take parental leave.

With 'expectant' fathers, the figure is 21 days from the expected week of childbirth.

The 21 days can be decreased by agreement.Postponement of leave by employer: In the case of 'expectant' fathers (mothers already being covered by maternity leave), the firm cannot postpone parental leave.

In all other circumstances, it can postpone the proposed leave for a maximum o f six months where it considers the 'business would be unduly disrupted'.

To do this, the firm must, within seven days of the employee giving notice of intention to take leave, reply in writing, stating the reason for the postponement and specifying the date/s when the employee will be able to take the leave, with that date to be determined in consultation with the employee.Effect on career: It is unlawful for anyone taking parental leave to suffer detriment as a consequence of doing so.

With case law still to be developed, potential examples are being passed over for promotion because of the absence, or missing out on a career opportunity while away.

Mutual obligations of loyalty and good faith continue throughout parental leave, as do an employee's obligations under restrictive covenants and any duties of non-disclosure.

An employee taking four weeks or under parental leave has the absolute right to return to the same job.

If the absence is more than four weeks, the entitlement is to return to the same job unless not reasonably practicable, in which case the alternative job must be 'suitable and appropriate'.

Any dismissal for a reason connected to the taking of leave is automatically unfair.-- Maternity leaveThe period of ordinary maternity leave has increased from 14 to 18 weeks.

The length of service needed to qualify for additional maternity leave has been reduced to one year.

The length of additional maternity leave remains the same, namely 29 weeks from the week of birth.

These changes apply to births which take place after the week beginning 30 April.-- Summary of existing maternity rights as amendedA woman must give 21 days notice (or less if not reasonably practicable) of the date she intends maternity leave to start, including in this information the expected week of childbirth.

If she is absent from work within six weeks of the expected week of childbirth for a pregnancy-related reason, the leave commences from that date.

With additional maternity leave, there is no requirement to give the employer notice unless it is specifically asked for at least 21 days before the end of the ordinary maternity leave period.

There is no right to be paid wages or salary (though there is a right to statutory maternity pay) during ordinary maternity leave.

The legislation is silent on the payment of other benefits, but it is understood that pension contributions are now payable.

This differs from additional maternity leave where, as with parental leave, there is no right to any remuneration in respect of that period.The rules on detriment applicable to parental leave also apply to maternity leave and pregnancy, affording women an unprecedented amount of protection from damage to their careers.

They no longer have to prove sex discrimination in order demonstrate detriment, meaning the employer cannot rely on a defence of justification.

This makes effective policies and procedures on the part of the firm essential.

Dismissal connected to the taking of maternity leave or any other reason connected with the pregnancy is automatically unfair.-- Time off for family emergenciesEmployees now have the right to take a 'reasonable' amount of unpaid time off to care for a 'dependent' who has become ill and in certain other emergencies, such as where the dependent has died or care arrangements have suddenly been interrupted.

An emergency concerning a child's schooling is also covered.

'Dependent' includes a parent, spouse, child and anyone resident in the same house (except tenants or lodgers).

This latter category benefits, for exampl e, co-habitees of natural mothers wishing to take time off to care for their partner's children.

Notice of intention to take the leave must be given to the employer as soon as is reasonably practicable.

If leave is refused, a complaint can be made to an employment tribunal and compensation granted.WOMEN ON TOP, BY ALISON CLARKE-- CHRISTINE BERRYThe managing partner at Taylor Vinters in Cambridge, Christine Berry, says she has always been interested in the management side of the firm.

She puts this down to the fact that she is a 'second-career lawyer', having run a publishing company in London before switching to the law in her 30s.She says her background has been useful in getting to the top.

'Because I came from outside the law, I did not have the traditional mindset of a lawyer, and because I had already run a business, it was almost inevitable that I would take on some sort of managerial role'.However, she recognises that her election as managing partner in 1999 was still a fairly radical step by the firm.

'Particularly here in Cambridge, it was seen as a very bold step.

But it has helped us to break out of the mould of a traditional law firm and is symptomatic of the fact that we are trying to do things differently.

As a firm, we are much more entrepreneurial and innovative as to how we can provide legal services than many others.

And the sort of ideas I had for the firm chimed in with the market, so I was just in the right place at the right time.'She says it has not been difficult getting to the top -- after qualifying in 1992 at Taylor Vinters (which currently has five female and 19 male partners), she became a partner in 1996.

She insists: 'This thing about women and success is anathema to me.

If you are good at what you do, there is no reason why people should look at whether you are a man or a woman doing it.

You are just doing a job.

There is no reason why a woman cannot manage a law firm, and the sooner that law firms realise that they are a business to be managed, the better.'She accepts that it is still unusual to have women in senior management, but argues that 'we will see more and more of them'.

She also accepts that there can be problems for women lawyers with children, 'although male partners are juggling commitments as well.

Firms need to be more flexible, as we are.

We employ good people and we want to be able to accommodate them'.-- JULIE BRADLEYJulie Bradley, the newly-elected managing partner at 18-partner City firm Devonshires, has had a meteoric rise to the top since joining the firm six years ago as an assistant solicitor and becoming an equity partner in 1997.

She ascribes her success to a non-confrontational style of management, as well as a genuine interest in the business side of the job.She thinks it is 'a good thing' for the firm to have a woman as a managing partner, and she anticipates that the more women who take on the job, the easier it will be for others to follow.

She says: 'Lack of confidence among women is a big thing.

If you are good enough to do something, you should be doing it.

But women have to believe that they are good enough.'She says she has never experienced any serious sexual discrimination -- the worst that happened was being mistaken for a secretary by a client.

Her advice is not to take such incidents too seriously.

'If you go around beating your chest, it just militates against you.

You have to laugh these things off.'Although she has never come across a client who found it difficult to deal with a woman, she admits that some solicitors do.

'Sometimes I h ave solicitors on the other side who do not like dealing with a young woman.

They often find it difficult to concede points, but I have to stop thatattitude from getting in the way of doing my job'.Having become managing partner at the age of 38, she thinks it is very important to help other women achieve their goals.

'I see myself as a role model for other women.

Basically if I can do it, then so can they.' She argues that being a woman can be a positive asset.'Being slightly unusual has its advantages.

For instance, I can say things and get away with them in circumstances that a man cannot, because I may not present as much of a challenge.'Her advice to other women is to 'be yourself.

Don't be afraid to say things and don't worry about the fact that you are a woman and that women have not done this before.'You have to be prepared to put yourself about a bit and express your opinions in public.

If you start to worry too much about it, all you do is create problems for yourself'.-- HILARY MEREDITHSome people go straight to the top, while others take a more circuitous route.

People like Hilary Meredith, for example, who started at Manchester-based Donns as an unqualified junior assistant in 1986, but who ultimately became its managing partner in August 1999.She admits that it was a struggle to get to the top.

'The reality is that I went about it all in a very unconventional and roundabout way.' She only decided to study law after her attempts to be a PE teacher were thwarted by an accident.

After taking part one of her Law Society finals, she took off for Spain in 1983 for three years.

By coincidence, the job at Donns came up in the recruitment agency where she was working on her return, and she persuaded them to take her on.She finally qualified in 1994 after the firm sponsored her through her finals, which she passed with a commendation while also caring for a young baby.

She became a partner the same year in recognition of the complex personal injury work she had been doing for the firm.Because of her unconventional past, she sees herself as a positive role model, particularly for unqualified staff in the firm (which has six female and five male partners).She says her strength is that she is able to bring 'great communication skills to the job, which sometimes men have not developed so well.

Where some men are very aggressive in litigation, women can lift the phone and negotiate'.As a mother, she is very aware of the problems facing women at work, particularly when they get to a certain age and have family commitments.

'Trying to juggle children with the responsibilities of a house, as well as managing a law firm with 260 people is very difficult.'You cannot let any of the balls drop.

Men often have wives to give them that support -- I could do with one of them.

The amount of work I have to do in the morning is substantial, and that's before I even leave the house.'Although she does not think it is significant whether a firm has a male or female managing partner, she acknowledges the degree of interest in women managing partners and professionals in general.

She says that because of her promotion, the firm has been able to project itself as both forward thinking and progressive.-- DIANA PARKERUntil she was prevailed upon by her colleagues to stand for election as senior partner at 47-partner City firm Withers, Diana Parker says it was not something that had occurred to her seriously.'I thought the role of senior partner was for someone of a less executive bent than me -- someone who would act as an ambassador for the firm and would ensure as much unanimity as possible, rather than one of effecting change.

I like achieving outcomes and effecting change, so I was surprised when people wanted to vote me in as executive senior partner.'As the senior partner, she says her main role is to 'enthuse people in the ways the firm can move forward and encourage them to think creatively and laterally as to what is in the interests of the firm'.

Although a male senior partner would do something similar, she says that it is significant that the firm elected a woman to do the job.

'As a result, I think the firm is seen as innovative, particularly as we were the first City practice to have a woman senior partner.'Ms Parker says she has not come across any antagonism in her new role, but accepts that some people may think that 'it is odd not just to have a woman as a senior partner, but also someone who is very young'.

She was 40 when she was elected, having qualified with the firm in 1983.

She became a partner in 1987 and took over as head of the family law department in 1991.

She took up the senior partner role in early 1999.Although she is not convinced that women lawyers make better managers than men, she says that women may be better at juggling a variety of priorities.

'As a result, women tend to be more pragmatic and resourceful in a way that is useful in management, although that is not to say that men can't be.'She takes the unconventional view that it may be easier for women to become top managers in law firms than men.

'There is an element of curiosity value in having a woman and there is also an element of something new in having a woman.'But there is also an element of a difference of approach that some women may have -- they may be more pragmatic, more manipulative and that assists them in moving through the ranks.'-- JOY KINGSLEYWhen Joy Kingsley became managing partner of Manchester-based Pannone & Partners in January 1995, she broke the mould of male dominated law firms.

Although she says her rise to the top was not difficult, she was the first woman managing partner at the firm and, at the time, one of the few women operating at that level in any of the big law firms in England and Wales.With 37% of its 54 partners now women, Pannones came top of a recent Gazette survey of the number of women partners at top law firms (see [2000] Gazette, 20 January, 3).Ms Kingsley says she now expects to see more women coming through the ranks and getting the top jobs.

'There are lots of good male managing partners, but women often have a greater interest in people management than men, who may want to continue fee-earning.

Women also have the skill of being able to keep lots of balls in the air without dropping them, which is what being a managing partner is all about.'Despite her optimism about the numbers of women she expects to see getting to the top, she accepts that life may not always be as straightforward for women as for men.

'It all depends on the firm and the specialism that women are in.

For instance, if you get into corporate finance which may require you to work through the night, it is virtually impossible for a firm to accommodate a woman with children who no longer wants to work those hours.

However, in most other cases there is no reason for firms not to make flexible arrangements.'Not surprisingly, Ms Kingsley maintains that Pannones offers women the same opportunities as men to make it to the top, and the firm has flexible arrangements to facilitate that progression.

Take her own history as an example: she joined the firm as a trainee in 1978 and was a partner five years later.

She subsequently became an equity partner in 1986 and was managing partner by January 1995.She accepts that there has been some publicity value for the firm in having a female managing partner.

'But,' she says, 'male managing partners get publicity as well.

Obviously, you can use it as a marketing tool, but clients will come to a firm because it can do the job, not because it has a woman managing partner.

What is important is that you have the right person for the job, irrespective of their gender.'