One hundred years on from the act of parliament that allowed women to enter the legal profession, we profile some of Harrison Drury’s women in law about what the anniversary means to them.
In our final instalment we profile consultant Irene Chenery, a specialist in private client work and specifically in matters that affect the elderly. Irene was a director with Chenery Maher for 25 years prior to its merge with Harrison Drury in October 2017.
Have you overcome particularly challenging times during your career?
I grew up in a single-parent, working-class family and was the first in my family to go to university. With that came a sense of expectation and dread. With no-one in my family to offer advice from experience, I had to figure things out for myself.
I got through it because I was brought up to believe anything you really want is possible. I suppose being the first in my family to go to university was not an obstacle, it was in fact, a door that had not yet been opened. I was the first to open it!
Setting out on a career in law, I also discovered that the huge amount of training required could not be achieved without a salary or funds to support it.
It was through sheer grit and determination, coupled with the wonderful support network I have at home, through education and among friends and colleagues, that I am now a solicitor.
The only other ongoing challenge is I sometimes lack confidence in myself, which can be a barrier to progression. But I have been very fortunate throughout my career that others have instilled their confidence in me.
Why is it important to have women in senior positions in law?
As solicitors, we are told that we are officers of the court, which essentially means that we have a role to play within the legal system. Throughout our daily life, the law interacts with everyone and everything. It is therefore important that people in the legal system accurately reflect the people in society that our law aims to represent.
We are seeing an increase in women becoming solicitors, to the extent that every year more and more women are qualifying than men. However, this is not reflected through career progression with still significantly more men than women taking up senior positions within law firms. I am aware that, being the head of a law firm, I have been in the minority.
Who are your role models and why?
My late mum: She was so emotionally intelligent and measured.
My training principal: He remained human whilst being a stickler for doing things properly.
My husband! He puts up with everything life throws at him (including me) with a sense of calmness and equanimity.
How has the legal profession changed for women during your career?
When I set up my own practice in 1992, I wanted to make sure we created our own ‘company rules’, while of course remaining within the realms of the law! I was therefore fortunate to be able to shape the experiences for women in law, well, at the very least for the women who worked alongside me at Chenery Maher.
Without any intention or bias, I also employed predominantly women. We all supported each other and accepted the challenges of illness, having children and elderly parents as part of life’s rich tapestry, rather than as an impediment to career progression. At the time, this was not necessarily the case in many other law firms.
As an owner of a law firm specialising in family and elderly client law, I strived to ensure our practice was genuinely run on family values. Being a family friendly firm is essential to ensure a symbiotic relationship with clients.
The development of accreditations such as the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioner (STEP) in 1991 and Solicitors for the Elderly (SFE) in 1999, coupled with the growth in popularity of flexible working, has brought the importance of maintaining family values (both for employees and clients) to the forefront of the legal profession.
What do you think is the most defining moment for women in law over the last 100 years?
Although this misses the last 100 years by a heartbeat – the most defining moment for women in law and in every branch of life in Britain was the first world war – leaving us with not enough men, plus a realisation that women were not only necessary, but capable of running things in their absence! Almost every advance in our profession has followed from that.