Stacey Shortall is LawFuel’s Lawyer of the Year. She is a litigation partner with MinterEllisonRuddWatts and won the “Women of Influence” award in the community and not-for-profit category last year.
Having spent over 10 years working as a Wall Street litigator she is one of New Zealand’s most important lawyers – someone who is making a significant impact well beyond just working as a successful lawyer.
She spoke with John Bowie.
How can the statistics for the number of women in New Zealand law firms improve in your view?
I’ve been practising for 20 years and as such I’ve been in that 20 year ‘window’ during which more women than men have been graduating from our law schools.
In fact, there have been plenty of women entering our large law firms. But, as I understand the statistics, although around 48% of lawyers in big firms, being firms with 20+ partners, are women, only about 21% of the partners in those firms are female which just doesn’t add up.
More women have been pumped into firms, but they’re not coming through the ranks into partnership so something is coming off the tracks there.
It’s a similar situation in the US – in fact the numbers are not materially different. But I would say that the women partners in the Wall St firms that I know have put a lot of emphasis on showing leadership and demanding change – they have been very vocal about the need to retain and promote women lawyers in large firms.
I am very much encouraging of that with other women law firm partners in NZ – who I think need to be strong about demanding change. I’m not suggesting that they’re not already strong in this regard, but I would love to see it being shouted loudly.
And I would love to see more of us talking publicly about the need to tackle the negative gender stereotypes and the obstacles created by an unwillingness to truly support flexible working arrangements, which I believe are the main reasons why many women leave large firms.
Our support for such arrangements is one of the primary reasons we have so many senior women at MinterEllisonRuddWatts.
Especially given the technology that we now have at our fingertips, which enable lawyers to work from anywhere if we choose, the traditional notion that office “face time” is a requirement for success needs to be dispatched to the wilderness in my view.
And the more senior women we have championing these sorts of arguments, the better.
But I’m reminded of comments made by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who is in all sorts of hot water at present for repeating her catch-cry that there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other. I’m not looking to get in that much trouble!
But I do feel strongly that women leaders need to reach out to other women and help them. And, while they’re at it, to create more working flexibility for our men too, many of who want to shoulder more family and domestic obligations which, in turn, will help their wives and partners balance their work commitments.
I have men working with me who fit that bill and they’re great role models as well.
When I worked in New York, I recall seeing Madeleine Albright speak at a function in DC, and she was very strong on saying that there is a need for women to help one another.
I likewise distinctly remember when Hillary Clinton came in to speak with the women lawyers at my old Wall Street firm and she hammered the same message.
It’s an important one, I think. Sure we need senior men to help champion the fight for gender parity around the partnership table. Don’t get me wrong there. But we need the senior women alongside them and role modelling the lives that younger women might wish to have.
Are you disappointed with local lawyers?
I’m disappointed that our numbers around the retention and promotion of women lawyers aren’t better. Because I know from working at Minter Ellison how having female partners and leaders can positively impact culture in a firm.
It would be disappointing if all the women partners in large law firms in NZ were not actively mentoring and sponsoring young women through the pipeline and were not actively looking for ways to encourage the retention and promotion of women lawyers.
And I’ve got every reason to believe there’s a lot of that work being done. What I’d like to see is it being shouted from the rooftops. And celebrated within firms.
We’ve always had a lot of women partners at Minters. When I started at the predecessor firm Rudd Watts & Stone, as it then was, there already were 4 women partners in the Wellington office where I worked.
And 20 years later we have at least that number in Wellington and a lot more in Auckland. It’s a success story but one that only a small number of firms can tell. So I will continue to be disappointed if we cannot get more firms telling a similar story in the near future.
Why do women leave?
We’ve got to get away from gender stereotyping and also keep improving flexibility in the workplace, which is I believe the main reason women leave. Culturally at Minters we’ve done a lot of work on that front, and because we have a lot of women lawyers it also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I do think we can do more across the firms to work with one another to keep progressing.
Although the office face time model and the firm culture it creates affect both genders, I believe it takes a really high toll on those women who are trying to balance firm expectations and family demands.
Let’s be honest. In many families, not only are women the primary caregivers for their children, but they also shoulder the majority of family responsibilities. It makes the going pretty hard.
Are Men the problem?
In some firms there may be that – it hasn’t been my experience with Minters. And I want to emphasize that I think that it is often not the intention of men to create problems. But unconscious bias is alive and kicking.
Especially having worked as a Wall Street litigator, I particularly enjoy the lingering gender stereotypes about men being “better with numbers” or financially literate than women.
And we all know the classic double-bind – that an assertive female lawyer is too aggressive and masculine, yet a woman who is less confrontational is ineffective and weak.
And then there is the “maternal wall” bias. By that I mean a bunch of negative assumptions about the commitment and career aspirations of women once they have a family.
One of the issues for women lawyers is that firms talk about the glass ceiling – when in my experience many women hit the ‘maternal wall’ first and then don’t even get a run at the glass ceiling.
They run into that maternal wall because, at the same time they are building the business case to be promoted to partnership, they are in child-bearing and raising years. Some of these women may turn to part-time or flexible working arrangements. Timing for partnership often coincides with when many women choose to have families, or explore whether they can.
So law firm partners, most of whom are men, need to decide if they are going to be supportive over the arc of a women’s career and accommodate some of these factors without drawing negative conclusions. Otherwise we will continue to lose these women.
They drop out of the profession, some for short times or permanently.
These women are incredibly valuable. They will be top performers. And they can be wonderful role models. I know what it’s like to work in a law firm where there were no women partners who appeared to have a life I wanted. Younger women leave when that happens.
So I think it’s not necessarily the male culture, but there are key questions for the leadership of the firms – which is currently predominantly male.
They need to look hard at how they’re tackling unconscious bias and at what they’re doing. While I know not every woman is going to have children, many will. And unless they believe they can be both a successful mother and a successful lawyer, they will leave.
What should happen?
My strong view around is that the key is making available alternative working arrangements that are available to both men and women. When you gender stereotype those arrangements, you stigmatise them and I have never seen that work successfully.
The best environment – in my experience in New York and NZ – is where you see those alternative working arrangements for men and women they are used by both and they’re endorsed, encouraged and promoted by firm leadership. When those things happen you actually start to change the culture.
So the broader point here is we need to get men to work more flexibly too.
There are a lot of lifestyle and well-being things that come from this flexibility. People are happier, they work more effectively and efficiently, and the firm model is more sustainable.
How do you work with your children?
I work flexibly around my children – I have 3 kids – and I am very focused on not compromising being an involved parent because I’m a law firm partner. I think those things can work hand in hand. Sure my smart phone is with me a lot of the time. And I work a lot at night and late.
But I prioritise blocking out chunks of my day around my children – and it works.
If you work in an environment where office space time is still the priority and being in the office is an indication of your dedication and commitment then you will drive women out. We need more flexibility.
Regardless of gender, lawyers can work effectively and clear, for example, emails just as readily in a car outside a playground or in the evening as you can sitting at a desk in a firm office. Much of my work can be undertaken just as effectively in my home office once my children are asleep as it can during the day at my law firm desk. Time can still be billed. The hours will still be on the clock.
And in my experience clients are indifferent to whether you’re speaking with them from a mobile phone or your office phone. Increasingly they also like to deal with things over email. And of course I always make important time to meet with clients in person.
But that can be scheduled at times of the day which work around important events in my children’s lives. Very few clients unexpectedly pop into the office – you can schedule and arrange these meetings.
How does this fit with the billable hour and the new generation of women?
In New York the hours are dramatically higher than the expectations in New Zealand but, even there, in my opinion, most women leave big law not only because of the number of hours but because of the rigidity of those hours.
If you want to have that culture of flexibility I think leaders have to own it. I drop my kids off at school as much as I can and I collect them as much as I can. I don’t say ‘I’m going to a meeting’ – I say ‘I’m going to pick up my children’.
I’m sure there are some of my colleagues who think ‘I wish she’d stay, I’d like to get this finished’ and I am prepared to wear that.
But as a result of role modelling the behaviour, and we have other partners at Minters who do the same thing, we have male and female staff who will go and pick up their children from school, be at school events or assemblies and just be at all of those things that are key events in our children’s lives.
And that role modelling is fantastic for our young people because they don’t feel like they need to hide it, or be judged for it. And it doesn’t impact our team billings.
People still get the work done, just on a schedule that works for them around their other commitments.
Cathy is an absolute leader and has been Chair of MinterEllisonRuddWatts for a long time. There’s that whole saying of ‘follow my leader’. Who is a leader who looks like me? Who do I identify with? I want to work there.
When I came back from New York I looked around and spoke with various firms, and it ended up being natural to return to MinterEllisonRuddWatts where I had worked prior to going overseas.
They had a female head of firm in Cathy who was blazing a leadership trail and plenty of women partners with families who didn’t feel they needed to sneak out of the office. This made a big difference to my decision. I am fortunate to get to benefit from some of the law firm culture at Minters that Cathy has driven.
They have a very different view around gender than we do. When I started 20 years ago I was that first group that benefitted from the in gender discrimination lawsuits that happened not so much in New Zealand but certainly internationally.
When I arrived at Paul Weiss in New York they had just appointed a couple of women litigation partners – prior to that there had only been two in the history of the firm.
So for the first time there were three women litigation partners in the office. This was a very progressive law firm – first to hire an African American,- not white shoed at all – but that gender stuff, they were just starting to make those changes.
Women born in the 90’s haven’t had the negative experiences that many of us or our predecessors have experienced. They have gone through an education system, thankfully, where they have always been in equal numbers to the men. They enter our firms where there are as many, and often more, young females than men.
So their view around gender diversity and gender equality is different and that’s fantastic. That’s the utopia that our forbears hoped would happen, but we have to talk about the retention and promotion of women in a way that is inclusive for these young women.
For example while it may be jarring for many of us more senior women that younger women don’t want to call themselves feminists today, so be it.
They don’t want special treatment because they don’t believe they need it. And that’s yet another reason why firms looking to roll out flexible programmes and work need to think about it being done in a way that includes young men too.
How are we doing compared to the US?
In a litigation sense I am often the only woman sitting first chair in a New Zealand courtroom or the only woman speaking. In Wall Street, the bastion of male dominance, there were often a lot of women in court and taking a very active role.
With the Pike River Royal Commission, I remember being initially struck in the courtroom about how there was a sea of men compared to my New York experience.
There were very few women who had any active speaking role and that really struck me. When I left New Zealand 20 years ago I looked around and in the litigation space there were a number of female litigators. Where are they now? Why aren’t they coming through to the high profile cases?
It just felt like there were more female role models in New York.
What has been the main reason women are leaving the profession?
As I mentioned earlier, those who have left firms, both here and in New York, have often done so in my view because they couldn’t work flexibly and also had to deal with negative gender stereotyping.
At the profession level, this is particularly the case in the litigation environment where there is that classic ‘double bind’ I also mentioned; that you’re too aggressive and too masculine if you are strong and confrontational, and if you are about building consensus you’re ineffective and weak.
For a woman litigator, that can be quite challenging. You need to be more outspoken I think during confrontations generally as a women. And there would be some people who would say I’ve been too aggressive at times in my approach, I’m sure, but also plenty of people with less unconscious bias who would never say that.
I guess there are perceptions that aggression in a male litigator can be a very good thing. But for a woman, people aren’t quite so sure.
At the same time, I can say that I haven’t felt that my gender has been any impediment – I’ve never felt that.
But I’m not so sure about women leaving the profession.
While not as many women may have come through the ranks to law firm partnership in NZ, the private sector client base has a higher proportion of women in the top jobs In fact, the majority of in-house lawyers who I work with at this point are female and many work with flexibility – often that’s one of the reasons they’re in-house. Flexibility seems to be more respected there.
If you’re a private practice lawyer who knows and supports flexibility, then it can become a great platform for a client relationship.
At MinterEllisonRuddWatts, because we’re working with our own lawyers who have other commitments and work flexibly, then we’re less likely to fire off client emails at night-time or send emails on the day we know that a female client working a part-time schedule is not in the office.
Your charitable work – how do you find time to do all that?
I see it directly alongside my paid work in the sense that I treat it with the same level of priority. I carve out specific time in my calendar to do pro bono work as well. I probably don’t sleep as much as I should. I typically work at nights a lot on those sorts of things.
I find it enjoyable and I have some great friends outside of the firm who support charitable projects too. Over the years I’ve done a lot of pro bono work but to be sustainable it can never be about one person – it has to be about a group and you have to bring people on that journey with you.
They have to follow the cause, not the person.
I try and build a team around a community idea. I encourage all lawyers to become involved in pro bono work and not to diminish it, but to spend time in the community dealing with people because of a lot of those interactions expose them to different experiences and different people.
They learn different skills and they get out of their comfort zone. They learn to speak with people, explain things and find solutions that are novel – these are all things that are indispensable to being a good lawyer.
So there is a huge professional and skills development component to pro bono work and I still see it as part of my own professional development to do those things.
And when you think of it that way you don’t think of it as a bolt on, it actually becomes part of what you do. And who you are.
Tell us about your NY prison work and other charitable endeavours
There was a medium security facility right in the heart of Manhattan and I had heard there was some work being done with incarcerated mothers. So I tracked down the voluntary organisation involved. I went once, and then kept going for 10 years.
I became very involved with it and started running parts of it, giving presentations etc and my involvement lead to acting for some of these imprisoned women who were serving often very long sentences for killing their abusers and that lead on to other work I was doing in Harlem and the Bronx with mothers who had children being taken from them and put into foster care.
There were often legal issues around that – they were often African American women. And that work later lead to me going to Africa for a time. I spent some time in Ghana working on issues which involved violence against women kids.
I went with a volunteer organisation that matched offshore NGOs that wanted to access skilled volunteers – lawyers and doctors – who would find a match for you in an area of the world.
I worked with the Ghanaian police force who were involved in setting up a unit prosecuting child rapists. Which was quite insightful, particularly as you had a justice system that was not at all sympathetic to the plight of these children. So it was quite confronting and very educational.
What was it like coming back to New Zealand after 11 years in New York?
I came back to NZ with my children, with the view that I could spend more time being focussed on them. I loved New York, loved living there and my firm there too – but it was challenging with the children.
But when I came back I found myself tied up with Pike River and became very busy acting for the NZ based directors and senior managers. So there was no time at that point for any community based work outside of family.
So for that first 18 months after being back I was absorbing where there was the greatest need in New Zealand. I had always had an interest in violence against women and kids – that’s been a constant theme in my pro bono work.
I spent some time reading all the coronial reports about every child under the age of 3 who had been killed by way of non- accidental death in NZ.
I looked at the coronial findings and got a sense of why we were killing our children and what might help prevent it. I quickly saw that where there was violence against children, there was also violence against women – which was really confirming what I had seen in the US.
I looked very closely at where there was community work being done, which involves some really fantastic work being done in New Zealand.
I wanted to find a gap and so I approached Corrections about running a mothers project and probably spent the best part of a year crafting it the right way, talking with Corrections, talking up in Auckland with case workers and others to explain what I thought there could be done, particularly regarding incarcerated women to understand their rights and responsibilities as women.
I trained up a group of women lawyers at MinterEllisonRuddWatts and started that project, which has now been running for over a year with monthly visits in the facility and it’s a great project.
And the Homework Help Club has been running longer. About the same time I was talking to Corrections, I wanted to do something in Wellington and which gave all staff an opportunity to do something, not just the lawyers.
In Wellington we’re 15 minutes away from Cannons Creek where we have a lot of issues around child poverty and, access to role models.
I have strong views about getting people into better jobs, which means literacy is so important. So I thought why don’t we run a Homework Help Club here and so I rang a school.
Holy Family happened to be the first I called and I said why don’t I bring my car out once a week and bring some people from the firm and we just do some reading? They said “yeah, that would be great.” It was no more than that. And we’ve been doing that now for over two years.
Now with some friends under the “WHO DID YOU HELP TODAY” banner, I’m trying to roll that pilot scheme out to any Decile One primary school in the country that wants one and to get other firms, law, accounting, financing, corporate involved – because you’re getting people into communities where they wouldn’t otherwise go and that breaks down lots of barriers.
And kids see people they’d never otherwise see and they see them in their environments, which is a safe environment doing an activity – reading and other homework – that they know.
When I reflect on what drove me to start some of these projects, I believe one thing that has crept into New Zealand is the “them and us” issue.
When a child is killed or badly beaten it’s in the paper for a day and then forgotten. When the Kahui twins were killed, there was a lingering national outrage in the news papers, but we’ve become hardened to some of these things now. We need to re-discover what it is to be a national community again.
Anyway, if you want to know more, check out www.whodidyouhelptoday.org