Expert Insight

The Association Women In Law President of Association Women In Law . Anne Durez

  1. Tell us about the association “Women in law, women of exception” which you have created and that you are chairing

When I started practicing law, it was quite easy to be recruited by an international or a French business law firm, provided you were proficient in English. The period was closest to full employment, there were no social networks to market your legal competencies and success in one’s career depended almost exclusively on your hard skills – or at least this is what was widely believed. Gender diversity was not an issue which no one talked about.


The proportion of women in law has now reached 55 % in law firms and over 75 % within law departments of corporations. In the Paris Bar School, 70 % of students are women!  It does not mean, though, that a majority of them will reach top positions. Worse, an increasing number of women leaves law firms and complain about unequal pay, a lack of advancement opportunities and failure to get credit for their work.


How can it be the case? Why have women still lagged behind men in all sectors, including in the legal professions?


A few years ago, when I would hear more and more often my peers, female lawyers and corporate counsel complain about their difficulties to progress in their careers, I decided to set up an organization named “Women in law, women of exception”, which aims at helping women in law develop their leadership and reach top positions, both in the legal professions and more generally in the business, using our DNA : the promotion of the law and ethics. We are all unique and each of us is exceptional, it is important to say it!


We also believe that women in law have a specific duty:  to bring their contribution to the shaping of our changing world, where the rule of law and ethics must play a prominent role. For that purpose, women in law have to hold leadership positions. « Women in law, women of exception » indeed strives to become one of the instruments of our future.

What are our axes of work?


Firstly, we help our members develop their leadership. Many women are excellent experts but it is not enough to reach top positions. Ethics, courage, resilience, strategy, vision, respect, empathy, capacity to listen and dialogue with many stakeholders, to federate, have a posture, be challenged, resist stress… these are leadership qualities which, for some of them, are not always intuitive.

In practice, we regularly invite female leaders, General Counsel of top companies, CEOs, Chief of the Paris Bar, former Ministers…These are unique opportunities for our members to interact with exceptional personalities who are viewed as role models, to see their postures, listen to the way they have overcome the barriers in their career. I remember how Mercedes ERRA, CEO at Havas Worldwide, told us that she moved from Spain to France with the dreams of a little girl and is now one of the best and most famous women in advertising and communication, committed to promote gender diversity and equality in the business. We also had the privilege to welcome Veta Richardson, CEO and President of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC – 50,000 members). Veta shared with us her vision of the leadership of women in the legal professions.


Secondly, we sometimes partner with Academics such as Professor Scott Westfahl, Director of Executive Education at Harvard Law School Executive Education, to set up seminars on leadership. In June 2019 he came from Washington to Paris to talk about his program “Leadership in corporate counsel” and gave us practical tips to reinforce our business and leadership approach.

Thirdly, we do advocacy on equality and gender diversity issues. We recently contributed to a governmental study aiming at increasing the number of women in executive positions and in company boards. It was an extraordinary acknowledgment of the legitimacy acquired by our organization as well as an opportunity to contribute to shifting the lines. And this is exactly the type of action that we want to develop.

In the course of our different actions, we are always careful about including young women in our leadership and mentoring programs. The sooner women in law work on their soft and leadership skills, the higher they will be able to climb!

  1. Women in law leadership in France

In spite of symbolic female successes in the legal professions, a lot still has to be done in order to reach effective equality between men and women. The good news is that a growing number of law firms, corporations and judicial institutions are now aware of the necessity to ensure that women are given the same chance as men to be promoted in top leadership positions.


I want to recall that the first woman allowed to plead in court was Jeanne Chauvin, in 1901. It seems a long time ago, yet she had to fight during several years to obtain the same rights as her male peers. The argument raised to refuse her application was amazing! Men were convinced that if women were given the right to appear in court, judges might be convinced by other means than legal arguments…


Coming back to the 21st century, we all have in mind the name of Christine Lagarde, former French lawyer and currently President of the European Central Bank. Her career, initially in the legal profession, then in politics and the economy as well as her great leadership are examples for many women. A picture she published on Twitter in November 2019, when she met the members of the Governing Council, shows a single woman surrounded by 20 men! It looks like a scene of old days…Anyway Christine Lagarde herself probably did not imagine what her extraordinary career would be. In her different positions, she has showed a tremendous capacity of work, a wonderful ability to pool energies and resources, understand her environment, talk to many stakeholders, express her courage and resilience. Although she is not an economist, she is considered to be one of the most powerful leaders in the world.


Such a career is exceptional. Other French women lawyers have shown the path to leadership. I am thinking of Dominique de la Garanderie who was the first woman to become Chief of the Paris Bar in 1998 or Chantal Arens, recently appointed head of the French Supreme Court.


Although the legal professions are mainly composed of women, be they judges, practicing lawyers or corporate counsel, a majority of them do not hold leadership positions. For instance, none of the law department of the 40 largest French corporations is headed by a female General Counsel.


We all know the obstacles faced by women to develop their career: an insufficient work-life balance, the fact that men too often coopt themselves, a possible lack of self-confidence from women and of course a lot of biases coming from men when they decide to give a promotion.


The solutions come both from women and from the law and the institutions.

First, women have to be more visible, to publish articles, to speak at conferences and seminars, to commit themselves in business legal organizations and show that they are as capable as men to be leaders. They also have to network at an early stage in their career as men usually do. When you are the best expert in an area of law but that no one knows it, it will not get you where you want to go. Of course, it requires a certain investment, in particular for younger women.

Then, the law and the legal institutions also have to play their role. In 2001, a bill was passed called “Coppé Zimmermann” setting up gender quotas and obliging companies to have at least 40 % of women sitting in company boards. Such a law has definitely helped women reach leadership positions but it concerns a small proportion of women in the business. This is the reason why law societies and companies now also raise the issue of gender diversity in the legal profession.


The future will tell whether the legal professions will be left behind or deeply change. Because equality and gender diversity – like all types of diversities – are the reflect of a good democracy, because the legal professions must be the first ones to respect the rule of law, it is now time that law firms, companies, judicial institutions and more generally all legal professions stand up and show the example!


  1. Your experience in leadership & the challenges


I would like to focus on two examples which have contributed to develop my leadership qualities and helped me to move along and live the values that I firmly uphold.


The first example relates to my rich experience within the Inter-Pacific Bar Association (IPBA) composed of 1,500 lawyers and corporate counsel working or having professional links with Asia Pacific. I was luckily and rapidly given the opportunity to hold responsibilities. I first chaired the Corporate Counsel committee and as such I became a member of the Council. Then a few years later I was offered the position of Chair of the Membership Committee and became an officer of the IPBA. These roles have allowed me to interact with so many different cultures, to contribute to the determination of the strategy and development of the organization and also to represent the IPBA in different countries. In my different positions I have seen how much soft skills such as the capacity to listen, envision, convince, interact with others…are almost as important as hard skills and that leadership embraces all of them. It is one thing to travel to several countries in Asia for leisure, it is another one to be able to work and develop relationships with your peers on the long term, to be acknowledged and trusted.


The second example concerns a project which I am currently leading for the French Association of Corporate Counsel (AFJE – 7,000 members) on Corporate Social Responsibility and Human Rights in corporations. I have the pleasure to coordinate a workgroup with the purpose of editing guidelines to help corporate counsel understand better the numerous legal obligations of companies on this topic. It is a huge challenge to work with peers from over 10 different large companies having their own business and organizational specificities as well as their legal challenges, to keep the deadlines and be efficient! This project is also very exciting because it is totally in line with my strong belief that beyond the legal obligations, corporations are now more sensitive to CSR and include its various components in their business models. Therefore I have the feeling that my contribution gives a strong meaning to my legal work, which is what I aim to eveyday!


  1. What is your advice for a young female lawyer


We often hear that a career is made of 3 thirds: the first one is competence, the second one is luck and the third one is network. Young female lawyers have to be aware that they must work on all of them.

First, always work and aim for the highest level for yourself. Don’t think that the top positions are not for you but only for others. Why would it be the case? You deserve what you dream of.

Then, keep in mind that you have to be visible in order to be promoted. Leave your offices, publish articles, speak at conferences, defend ideas and take positions, brand your DNA.

Also, network and invest some time in one or two organizations where you will bring an effective contribution. Be committed without wondering what your immediate return on investment will be. It will come sooner or later.

Be open, curious and cultivate a passion outside the law.

And last but not least, be strategic: determine your goals at 1, 2 and 5 years, make an action plan, be prepared to adjust it, find allies and mentor(s).

It’s far more enjoyable to live, sometimes fall down and rise than to regret to have not lived!



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