INTERVIEW: Dechert’s Dublin MP Carol Widger on work/life ‘blend’, new perspectives and setting precedents.

Contributed by
12 Feb 2020

The route to Partner

WHILE watching LA Law as a kid initially sparked Carol Widger’s interest in becoming a lawyer, it wasn’t until her final years at school in Ireland that her intention was fully set: she did some work experience at a law office and became focused on pursuing a career in law.

After an early career working with a sole practitioner, where she got a taste of everything including family law, she recognised that the rising Celtic Tiger would bring opportunities for a corporate lawyer. After completing a postgraduate diploma in financial services law Widger secured a job at a large, Dublin-based domestic law firm, joining the firm’s investment funds group and staying for 13 years.

Despite recognising early in her career that there may be some difficulties in maintaining a work/life balance, Widger’s sheer ambition motivated her to push for partner, which she made in 2008.

According to Widger, “the tension that many women encounter in the push for partnership is that it is often around the same time they think about having a family.” She notes, however, that having a strong sponsor who recognises your hard work means you won’t be overlooked. Indeed, when she returned to the firm after maternity leave she was made partner during the next promotion cycle.

“It’s not that you balance things out – I think you blend them. I became much more transparent: I would put into my calendar if there was a school sports day and I’d say that’s where I am and made no apology for it.”

Maintaining a strong sponsor relationship was part of the reason Widger moved to Maples Group in 2012, which proved to be an important stage in her professional development. “I had a significant role in terms of the next generation coming through the firm and the most important thing for me was developing our own talent.”

The work/life blend

Widger used her leading role to set precedents for herself and others in the firm: “It’s not that you balance things out – I think you blend them. I became much more transparent: I would put into my calendar if there was a school sports day and I’d say that’s where I am and made no apology for it. The same if I needed to leave early to do drop-offs or collections.”

Understanding the realities of blending work and family commitments, Widger always made sure she was “incredibly supportive” of associates with children. “They were all really hardworking, talented and conscientious lawyers who didn’t need to be micro-managed. They all wanted to succeed.”

How did it feel to become a role model? “I probably wasn’t really aware of it,” Widger humbly admits, “but by the time I left Maples I got a lot of messages from colleagues to say that they really felt I had set a good example and that was very rewarding for me. It’s always great to get that feedback from people.

“What I liked about the firm was its approach – rather than getting all of the statistics and saying ‘Yeah we’re great on diversity and everything’s fine,’ they were saying ‘We’re working on it, we’re not bad, but we could do better and these are the programmes that we have in place’.”

Diversity at Dechert

Now Widger is at the helm of global firm Dechert’s Dublin office. Part of what influenced Widger’s decision to join Dechert was the firm’s approach to diversity. “When I met with the partners I was focused on culture and diversity, as both are really important to me. What I liked about the firm was its approach – rather than getting all of the statistics and saying ‘Yeah we’re great on diversity and everything’s fine,’ they were saying ‘We’re working on it, we’re not bad, but we could do better and these are the programmes that we have in place’.”

One of those programmes is Dechert’s Global Women’s Initiative. Widger has so far been involved with the London-based faction of the group and feels that the initiative provides “a great community; it’s really helpful for women to get together and support each other. I participated in some training when I first joined, taking part in a panel discussion where associates could ask questions on work-related issues like how you progress, deal with difficult situations and push yourself forward.”

Widger also flags the firm’s forthcoming global partner dinner in New York, which is followed by a women partners’ dinner too. Dechert also has a professional development programme called SASS which provides “support and coaching for female associates as they navigate the path towards the partnership consideration process.”

Widger also chairs the Dublin strand of ‘100 Women in Finance’, a global affinity group for women working within the finance and alternative investment sectors. The group aims to provide support for women in these areas throughout their careers. “We’re at over 500 members now. We run events and have regular committee meetings. I would encourage women lawyers to get involved, as the network provides a platform to meet peers in other organisations that are encountering the same issues.”

What really matters is the quality of work not the quantity of hours you are seen at your desk.

Perspective change in the legal profession

As we turn back to discussing the legal industry, Widger is clear about the areas that need attention to foster more inclusivity. First up, she feels that a mindset shift must happen in relation to flexible working. “The difficulty is that we have what I call a culture of presenteeism in the industry,” Widger explains, “where you have some associates who think it is important to be seen to still be in the office at 11pm. What really matters is the quality of work not the quantity of hours you are seen at your desk.”

The issue Widger has found is that when she works remotely “nobody rings me! I think ‘Why is nobody ringing me?’ and colleagues will say ‘Oh, because I didn’t want to disturb you!’ I’m like ‘But I’m working from home!’ So it’s a total mindset thing.”

The other rigid mindset in the industry that Widger feels needs to be overcome is the “obsession with making partner. Everybody feels that in order to have a successful career in a law firm you have to become a partner and if you don’t get to that level you haven’t succeeded.” Making partner, affirms Widger, is not for everybody: “It’s hard work to get there, but once you’re there you have to push even harder, because so much more is expected of you. You’re expected to travel, do business development, do management, run a team and more. You never stop! You’re expected to be available 24/7. That’s not for everybody.”

A big shift that Widger would like to see is in how remaining an accomplished senior associate is viewed – not as a negative, but as a very positive and valuable career decision. “The senior associates tend to be the engine room of the firm, because they are able to run transactions and teams as well, but they don’t have all the additional responsibility. I don’t see why somebody couldn’t successfully stay at that level and be a huge contributor to the firm, but people feel that it’s ‘up or out.’”

“Remember you are the one in control of your destiny and you’re the only one who can get the right work/life blend. You have to be very disciplined about that, as no one is ever going to turn around and say ‘Go home, you’re working too hard!’”

Widger points to the accountancy firms, “which are quite good at doing this: they have directors and senior managers who stay at that level, are highly respected in the firm and highly regarded by their clients. As far as I can see no law firm has ever cracked that. We’ve talked about it at all the law firms I’ve worked in, but nobody has really figured it out.

Finally, Widger feels that firms “should look more closely at” the ingrained notion that lawyers have their one window of opportunity to make partner and that’s it. She talks about the need to allow lawyers to ‘press pause’ on their partnership aspirations to allow them space to attend to other commitments without extinguishing hope for future advancement.

Advice for young lawyers

What advice does Widger have for women lawyers out there who one day want to fill leadership positions like her? “Ultimately everybody reaches that level because they work hard and there’s no substitute for that,” says Widger, before adding: “Work hard and – this sounds corny – be kind and decent to people. Remember you are the one in control of your destiny and you’re the only one who can get the right work/life blend. You have to be very disciplined about that, as no one is ever going to turn around and say ‘Go home, you’re working too hard!’”

The other crucial element to advancing is finding a good sponsor, says Widger. “Somebody who fights for you, who speaks up for you, someone who mentions your name when pipeline talent is being discussed.” Hopefully that sponsor relationship develops organically, but if it doesn’t “you’ll have to go and find that person, which isn’t the easiest thing to do but you have to have somebody who has your back.” Widger also flags the importance of mentor relationships too but finds that “they only work to the extent that the people involved work the relationship.

Once you have a good sponsor who elevates you it’s then time to “give something back. Become somebody else’s sponsor as well. That’s the circle of life I guess, I’m very conscious of doing that for the lawyers who work with me. I work with some very talented lawyers and I want everybody to know about them. If I’m here in the London office I’ll say ‘Oh you should see such and such, they’re doing a really great job.’ I’ll make sure they’re spoken about!”

Widger was honoured at Chambers’ European Diversity & Inclusion Awards 2019, where her work was Highly Commended in the ‘Gender Diversity Lawyer of the Year’ category.