A presidency like no other: interview with I. Stephanie Boyce
As we enter the closing months of her presidency, I. Stephanie Boyce says she doesn’t always care to look back.
Her inauguration as president set historical milestones and her term has been like no other.
She stepped up as president ahead of schedule, at short notice, and has contended with many societal and legal changes, namely the continuing pandemic, the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam and the closure of the Solicitors Indemnity Fund.
Stephanie leads the Law Society’s responses to precarious international situations in Afghanistan and now Ukraine.
This is by no means Stephanie’s first professional test: her career has been hallmarked by her perseverance in the face of setbacks.
She has spoken at length about the many challenges she faced trying to break into the legal industry, and even stood for election for deputy vice-president four times before she was successful.
“I am absolutely led by blind faith. It’s never a matter of if, it's a matter of when,” she says.
“Our cemeteries are filled with people whose dreams died with them, and I was determined not to be one of them. It’s not about in how many times I’ve got knocked down, the lesson was in how I got up. Each setback gave me the opportunity to pick myself up, brush myself off and try again.”
She is the 177th president of the Law Society, but only the sixth female and first person of colour to hold the title.
She is also only the second president to also be an in-house lawyer in around 50 years.
Stephanie has worked in several in-house roles over her extensive career, including at the General Council of the Bar, the Pension Regulator, and the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators.
“Working in-house is a challenge like no other,” she says.
In some roles, Stephanie said she was the only legal expert in the organisation and – again – had to persevere alone. “Some materials, resources and research materials are not necessarily there. Neither is the companionship. You don’t always have that person that you can run to or ask or seek clarification from.”
A challenge for in-house lawyers, according to Stephanie, is being included in significant decision making. “It’s almost a given that if you’re a company secretary then you will have a seat at the board table. For some reason, legal professionals don’t seem to enjoy that same recognition.”
As Stephanie says herself, “one has to practise what they preach”, and during her presidency she made sure that the Law Society’s own general counsel was included in directorial meetings.
For Stephanie, directors need to understand “what the holdbacks are for not having that legal voice at the most senior table where decisions are made that impact business productivity”.
Her presence as president has increased visibility of in-house lawyers at a time when it is the fastest growing area of the legal profession.
Stephanie notes that she used to get asked generally about “alternative legal careers”, but now that rarely happens. People are specifically interested about working in-house.
For Stephanie, this is where the Law Society comes in: “In-house is a thriving business of its own. As it grows, we must ensure that the challenges that are met by in-house colleagues are ones that they are not facing alone. Rather, that we are there to support and provide them with guidance and information as and when they need it.”
One thing that concerns people about moving in-house is timing.
Is there a ‘best’ time in your career to move in-house? Not really, according to Stephanie.
“Anytime is a good time if that’s what you decide to do considering your own circumstances and if it doesn’t work out there is nothing stopping you going back to private practice if it is not for you,” she insists.
Stephanie began her in-house career in 2004, when “people felt that if you had gone in-house, it was because you couldn’t hack private practice. You were sort of ‘less than’”. Although things have changed, people still have reservations: “What I would say is, do your research, but first define your objective behind going from one sector to another”.
Diversity and inclusion in-house
There are specific factors that propel some to move to in-house from private practice, Stephanie highlights.
“Statistically, we know that if you are female and if you are from a Black, Asian or a minority ethnic background, you're more than likely to go and work in house and that’s for a number of reasons, career progression and flexibility amongst a few areas highlighted.”
Stephanie refers to the Law Society’s 2020 Race for Inclusion report, which paints a troubling picture of the experiences of Black, Asian and minority ethnic lawyers in the industry.
“The report showed that Black colleagues felt that they had been discriminated against more and that they did not have that sense of belonging to an organisation. In the round, they tend to feel the most included in-house,” Stephanie explains.
She also recalls figures that illustrate the lack of diversity at the top levels of private practice: “52% of our practising solicitors are female, but only 31% of those practising solicitors are found as partners in private practice.
If you come from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background and if you are in 50 largest firms, only 8% are partners, and that figure has only increased by 1% since 2014.
The figures do not enamour themselves enough for individuals to see themselves that they can develop in private practice.”
Clearly, there are pragmatic things that people can do to ensure that all their colleagues feel included.
For Stephanie, it's imperative that leaders challenge their own unconscious biases when allocating work:
“The report showed that those from minority backgrounds often feel that they are not being given fair allocation of work. Leaders should ask themselves, ‘am I giving work to the best person? Am I being fair in my practices? If I was challenged, could I demonstrate that I’m consistently applying the same reasoning for the distribution of work?’”
Looking ahead, Stephanie remains committed to her presidential goals:
“I continue to keep everything in focus. So many things have cropped up unexpectedly in the last 12 months. So, whilst I have a presidential plan, and I try my utmost to stick to those priorities, other things that have distracted or that have warranted our resources and attention and it's important that we deal with that. The membership expects us to deal with that and it's right that we do.”
But once her term ends, what’s next for Stephanie?
She is sure she will return in-house but has bigger plans to continue her advocacy work:
“The platform that you get as president has enabled me to provide visibility for many causes, and I would love to continue advocating for equity, diversity and inclusion, access to justice, and public legal education.
"The story shouldn't end with me leaving office: it should continue. The Law Society is really good at ensuring that continuity.”
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