“Trust and respect are fundamental to women’s careers”

Meet Penelope Warne, law firm founder and Law Society Board member. Penelope tells us about her career as an international energy lawyer, her experiences of founding her own firm, leading a global law firm and why empowering women is a win for everyone.
Penelope Warne is a white woman with medium-length, straight dark brown hair. She is smiling and wears a black and white houndstooth blazer over a black shirt with a silver necklace.
Supporting fairness in society was foremost in my mind when I did my law degree. I was very aware of the principles of access to justice and the rule of law throughout my career. Now that I look back, I see that in one way I didn’t have a very traditional route into the profession, while in other ways I did.

After five years with Slaughter and May, probably the most traditional start you could have, things really changed for me. I got married and because my husband was in the energy industry, he moved to Scotland, and so I moved to Scotland too. I wasn’t going to be content without a career, so I set about qualifying as a Scots lawyer.

Qualifying in Scots law was hard. At that time, there were no courses and it all had to be done by self-learning. I reached out to a couple of the universities in Scotland and a few of the professors were very kind in guiding me. I qualified with distinction and was proud to be practising as both a Scottish lawyer and an English qualified lawyer.

I set up my own law firm. What began 35 years ago grew to become the Aberdeen office then grew further – CMS having the largest footprint of any law firm in Scotland. When I set up my firm, I was also raising a baby and a toddler. This was challenging, but I was inspired by the people I was working with. It felt like building a parallel family in law and I wanted to see both the firm and its members grow. In time, I built an energy practice and worked with clients all over the world, building strong offices in London, Brazil and the Middle East.

I think the same principles apply whether you’re in a small office or guiding people in a global law firm. Behaviour begins with culture, and principles of diversity and inclusion rest on a foundation of trust and respect. That’s fundamental to all careers but particularly women’s careers. It is important to give junior lawyers the confidence, encouragement and support to continue because it’s so difficult building a career.

Things are getting better but there’s still work to do. When I started, law was a very conservative profession and women were expected to work like men. It was difficult, but then as now, the way to rise in your career is being really expert at what you do. This was how my generation showed women could succeed in the workplace in every area, not just law. That doesn't mean everything is fixed. Progress has been made but there’s more to do.

I would like to see more tolerance and appreciation of the needs of others across the profession. For example, if a woman needs to leave the office at a particular time to get home and care for an elderly parent or put a child to bed, it doesn’t mean she’s doing any less of a great job. Suggesting otherwise is wrong. In my firm, I had led a culture of hybrid working which is supportive and very healthy for wellbeing for men and women. I feel it's important for young men with young families to get to see their children too. Remote working needs to be combined also with the benefits of office working. The mix is important.

Leaders must be mentors too. We need to listen when people share their hopes and fears for their career and help them believe in themselves. For example, we had a brilliant lawyer at the firm, but her passion was for sports law which wasn’t our specialism at the time. At the time, many leaders might not have put in the time to help that lawyer, especially if they weren’t staying with the firm but it’s been deeply inspiring to see all the brilliant things she went on to do.

All people need to be recognised as individuals, not as a group. As a leader, you have a responsibility to support each person on their journey. It makes your organisation stronger and sets the right example to those who follow you. I’ve always been conscious of how difficult as a woman it can be to balance having a family and building a career, so I’ve taken my experiences and used them to support others and show what can be possible.

In any profession, you may face difficulties as a woman but being a lawyer can be a wonderful career. Collect strong team colleagues around you and connect with more senior women in your organisation and it will be much easier to navigate these difficulties. The important thing is not to try and fight every battle on your own.
We're celebrating 100 years since the first woman was admitted as a solicitor, all the women who have led the way before us, and those who keep striving for equality in our profession today.

Read about more trailblazing women solicitors:

The women who broke the barrier

“People weren’t taking me as seriously until I showed them what I could do”

Take ownership of your career with our leadership and management curriculum – it provides you with the tools you need to do your job and develop your practice and firm.

This campaign is sponsored by:

Maximise your Law Society membership with My LS