Women at the top of law firms
Anne Veerpalu has been working as an attorney since 2009 and has worked in large (Sorainen), medium (Glimstedt, NJORD) and small (Attela) law firms. Today, Anne runs the law firm TECH x LEGAL, which she founded herself. In 2021, Anne defended her doctoral thesis on blockchain technology regulation issues. Anne's heart is to support the self-development of women in the Bar Association. Over the past year, she has organized several exciting training events and conversation evenings for female lawyers. Anne is also the initiator of the Female Attorneys Facebook group, which tirelessly recognizes and empowers female lawyers for their achievements. In 2022, the Bar Association also recognized Anne by awarding her the Diamond of the Bar Association for her volunteer activities supporting the development of female lawyers.
What field of law do you currently work in?
My areas are venture capital, corporate law and technology law, with a focus on blockchain technology. In the summer of 2021, I defended my doctoral thesis on the blockchain technology regulation topic.
I started out as a corporate lawyer in 2001 while working in the tax and legal department of KPMG and from there on in various law firms. Through corporate law, I got into M&A deals and through that into venture capital and startups. Then the start-ups themselves forced me to take an interest in technology law, because their everyday issues are completely related to it. One startup, which has already become a multi-billion-dollar company, introduced me to crypto and blockchain technology starting from 2012.
I am attracted to interesting, bold, and progressive clients in these fields, the tension of transactions in the venture capital field and the adrenaline that comes with speed in the negotiation process. Blockchain technology has expanded my world many times over and turned law into such a huge sandbox full of discoveries for me, from which it is difficult to take leave and fall asleep at night without turning another page. I have found incredibly exciting projects, people, ideas, and companions along the way. As an attorney in venture capital and technology law, I am participating in a large-scale discussion. Conferences, research collaborations and networks in these sectors are all available. I do not just deal with one-sided contract drafting, I get to be on a big global stage with all the players in this industry.
However, corporate law is a durable foundation of my legal landscape, and I also advise a listed company and a conglomerate daily. Cross-border issues and points of contact between different regulatory regimes are constantly on my desk. The most exciting moments in my work are those moments when I realize that although many things are legally possible, technically certain transactions or entries or modifications cannot be made yet. Although the law often lags behind technology and is often already significantly out of date by the time it enters into force, sometimes the technical solution is also restrictive and outdated and does not allow the realization of what the law provides. In my doctoral thesis, I researched how technological innovations require regulatory innovations and how the practices and outputs of our regulation creation may not fit the current reality.
What has been your journey to partnership in your current office?
I currently have my own law office and am the only partner in it. I have previously been a partner in an office with 5 partners, and the journey to becoming a partner there was easy for me - my sales, work discipline, experience and skills were clearly distinguished. I was offered a partnership for the first time when I left one of Estonia's TOP 5 offices and was looking for a new place of business, being 35-years old and already a mother of 3 children. But then I did not accept it, and a new opportunity arose in another office 4 years later, which suited me better.
In fact, it is not difficult for any good lawyer to become a partner of a law firm in Estonia if he or she chooses the right firm for him. However, if you aim high and apply for a partner position in a top 5 firm, the competition will be stronger. But in any case, you must create an advantage for yourself - either in skills, reputation, courage, client portfolio, working life or another area. It often takes time to become a partner, but if such a goal is consciously taken, it helps to pave the way to partnership. I believe that female lawyers in Estonia often do not consciously act in this direction and do not set goals for becoming a partner. Setting such goals is fearful because one is not sure of their attainability and is afraid of being disappointed. However, by not setting goals – goals do not get achieved. An alternative is, of course, to create your own law office and, with or without consolidation, reach your goals.
I have 3 children and with all of them I had a bit of a break in my career. It has certainly affected my career as well. While on break, continuity cannot be ensured in the client portfolio, and clients must be distributed to other colleagues. This reduces the value of the lawyer´s portfolio. The client expects regular communication and relationship building. If you let a client go, you must start over later to regain their trust. At the same time, I cannot say with certainty whether my career would have been more successful if I were a man. Some of my male colleagues from previous offices have been waiting for partnership for 10 years and some for 20 years.
What are the values of the partner's position for you?
In terms of customer relations, a partner has a sales advantage because a partner's sales are more credible than a non-partner's. In terms of management, a significant advantage of the partner is the availability of data. Personally, the financial compensation associated with the partner position is of course important. In terms of self-fulfillment, partnership means being at the top, which is certainly an ambition for many.
Now I am more of an entrepreneur with my team than a partner in my office. My own point of view is that my current situation is many times more tilted towards being responsible than that of a partner in a large firm, where responsibility is more divided and the goals set for the partner or set by yourself are important, but not linked to the survival of the firm. In my office, however, every major decision I make affects the office's ability to survive. From my point of view, as a partner in my own law office, I am like a coach in a basketball team and I nurture stars, organize playing opportunities, design winning strategies, tools, public visibility, etc. Customers are also like a team - they just have a different game, and my job is to support them in their game and help everyone understand the game situation, make decisions and win.
Why do you think that on average only 25% of the managers of the largest law firms in Estonia are women, although on average 49% of the employees are women?
Generally, it is much easier for men with men - you can do sports together or talk about it, you can also make dirty jokes together, which on certain occasions is not allowed in the presence of women. And many women find it easier with women, because you do not have to doubt the meaning of men's statements - whether it was flirting or what was behind this or that comment. A lot is determined by such a simple topic as credibility as an expert - a woman must be objective, calm, and trustworthy to have the same status as men in the company of men. It is easier for men to understand the behaviour patterns of other men, but they trust women more as subordinates or colleagues. As a result, men hope that other men will stay in the office on the condition of becoming a partner, but at the same time they trust that women will stay in the office out of loyalty anyway without partnership attached.
Its role is that the stereotypical hero is still mostly a man (e.g. Avengers). In crisis and demanding situations, clients often turn to a man with a strong, tough hand, who has seen life, who is not afraid of anything and can remain calm. Women are more often associated with caregiving and regular routine support. Therefore - since a lawyer should ideally be like a soldier who is not afraid to pull the trigger at the right time and does not give state secrets to the enemy, the excellence of a legal service provider is often associated with a masculine hero. It is also a stereotype that lawyers wear suits and their secretaries wear skirts. This perception continues to be strongly reflected in films and books and is rooted in our cultural space.
Do you think it is important to increase the proportion of women in the management of law firms?
Yes. Just as society cannot survive without women, women are also needed in organizations. There is nothing in leadership that women cannot do. Women and men are certainly different in leadership positions, but there are also differences between men and women. But it is not only about the management of law firms, but about the role of women in management in general: also, in the management of stock exchange, construction, manufacturing companies and banks. There, too, more women need to be brought into management and they need to be supported as leaders. The fear that because of this some child is at home without food or does not go to bed on time is unfounded, because every child also has a father, or support in matters related to children and the home can be organized in other ways.
If women are involved in management, there will be no segregation and classification between managers and subordinates. Women and men have different handwriting and style, and the differences also allow for a dissimilar experience for employees. I also see the advantage of including women in that male partners can become too competitive or fight with each other. Women tend to see cooperation as a strategy and are more conscientious about common goals. At the same time, even one man in a group of women can become their leader, as women tend to submit more easily to someone else making decisions and women more often want to agree with the other party to avoid conflict.
Women's participation in office management is also important to motivate younger colleagues, to show that you can reach the top regardless of gender.
Have you experienced that a client chooses a firm based on the presence of female partners, or have there been situations where a female partner or lawyer better meets the client's expectations? But the opposite?
I have not seen that a firm with female partners or female lawyers has any advantages - quite the opposite. As previously mentioned, heroes are often identified with male characters. However, I have heard and experienced situations where the client prefers a male lawyer. It has been assumed that if the lawyer had a deep voice and a more masculine demeanour, the other side's lawyer would have more respect for her, and she would be more believable than a frail high-pitched voice woman. The prettier or smaller a woman is, the less some clients believe in her professional ability.
I have also perceived that I have missed some professional opportunities because of my gender. I have been told directly by my manager that I should not ask for a career promotion myself but should wait patiently for it. I do not think men are answered that way.
What is your office's attitude towards achieving or maintaining gender balance at the management level?
My office is in no way bound by any stereotypes - neither in terms of gender, skin color, origin, ethnic or religious background. I value personal qualities and curiosity, but sometimes in negotiations you must think about gender and who to include in your team, where and in whom to advise. I pay attention to the gender balance in my office, because too much leaning to one side or the other is tiring and not motivating for the minority. Balance is important, but I still try to ensure quality.
What could law firms, the bar association and society at large do to increase the level of representation of women in the management of law firms and among partners?
I think that women in law firms should be more helpful to each other in their careers. Less jealousy would be nice. If a woman is already at the top of her career, it is her task to help another woman get there as well and to motivate and create opportunities for those who follow. A woman in a leadership position can also change the world by breaking the stereotype of law firm partners as a man's world. A woman in a law firm should never make the mistake of not standing up for her female colleague if she feels women are being humiliated or discriminated against in the work team by comments or jokes from men. In this case, you should always respond by making a non-emotional, relevant remark or question such behaviour – this is what heroes would do.
The fact that a woman was elected as the chairman is a major step forward for the Bar Association. Also a man could be hired as chancellor instead. Furthermore how the profession looks from the outside is also important. The Bar Association could also support women as speakers in internal trainings and spokespersons for the profession itself in the media. In my view, the profession of attorneys is inferior in this to, for example, the Prosecutor's Office and the judiciary and even notaries, because in their case the spokespersons are often women. In case of the legal profession – the attorneys in the media are mostly men.
Society in general should certainly pay more attention to parenting methods and parents' attitude towards their daughters. Daughters should not only be beautiful and caring and helpful to their mother, but key players in the family unit both in making decisions and in their implementation. Self-belief and the courage to dream should be instilled in daughters, and the daughters should also boldly take risks in realizing their dreams.
Girls should also develop the self-confidence to say "no" and sometimes the arrogance to be lazy and not obey the majority. I think we are too often stuck in our own past and in the gender roles imposed on us by our parents and grandparents. Even if in theory we are not in favour of women's home-centeredness, we still want our daughter to be able to cook at home, help clean, wash, and comb her hair beautifully. And then we roll our eyes when the daughter introduces us to her rules by which she intends to act. At the same time, we forgive boys more for violating boundaries and find that boys can go their own way more freely. This might be my personal issue, but I feel like I still must work hard with myself to avoid these stereotypes.
What would you recommend to women starting their careers in law firms today to realize their potential?
I recommend thinking from the first day that there is no ceiling and that the skirt is just an item of clothing. None of us must blindly respect the currently prevailing gender roles in society unless we agree with them. Nowadays, it is no longer only women who wash the dishes and clean at home, and there are no longer male or female roles in the workplace. A woman should remember that a person is made up of his body, his soul, and his mind, and only one of these three has a gender.