Dentons Europe Dąbrowski & Partners partner Aldona Kowalczyk evaluates gender equailty in the Polish legal market, including positives like the work of The Women in Law Foundation and issues with employment law


What obstacles have you had to contend with during your legal career that related to your gender?

In the course of my professional career, I have always been lucky in that all of my male supervisors always believed in me and supported my development. Although I realise that the above is by no means always the case. It is not easy for women lawyers to work in an environment traditionally dominated by men. At university, I got my first taste of the view, usually professed by a part of more elderly professors, that law was a profession suited for men and that they did not see much sense in women taking up law as their major. I sincerely do hope that this attitude has changed over the years. That said, in some areas of law or in specific matters (e.g. those involving technical details) men seem to be in the majority to this day – both as clients and as opposing counsel. In appellate proceedings or negotiations I usually meet men who initially often look down on a woman lawyer, as if with a subtle degree of nonchalance. Luckily, this attitude tends to change quickly after a brief exchange of views on legal matters, as soon as the opposing lawyers realize they are dealing with a well-prepared adversary. However, in the majority of cases this means that a woman must work harder to win a favourable opinion. To be treated as an equal, it will not suffice if she is well or very well prepared: she simply has to be perfect.


From the perspective of gender equality how does the environment which you work in now compare to the one you began your career in?

The overall situation seems to have improved. There are more and more women in managerial positions, I meet them as my clients and also as legal counsel representing the opposing parties in large complex cases. Also more and more women are climbing up the corporate ladder in law firms, making it to partnership.


In general do you feel the legal profession in your jurisdiction treats women and men equally?

Formally it does and women seem to have equal chances as regards education and promotion. But there are differences and they are caused by other considerations – it is the women who have children and thus have breaks in their professional career, and it is the women who in many families and households are burdened with countless house chores, thus making them often far more burdened than men.


Are there any initiatives to promote gender equality in the legal profession in your jurisdiction?

There are a couple of initiatives in Poland to promote gender balance and women's participation in the legal profession, yet in general they are rather scarce. One of the examples is The Women in Law Foundation, which is the initiative in Poland that aims to integrate the legal community, exchange knowledge and good practices not only among active female lawyers, but also among students, trainees and young representatives of the legal profession. The mission is based on the desire to show that without the involvement and listening to the voice of the young generations about to enter the labour market, it is impossible to build a modern, advanced and development-oriented legal industry in Poland. They excel at events, where the speakers are mainly women. Some of them come often without major experience in public speaking - it's about building both their recognition in the legal industry and personal brands and confidence.


If you could introduce one policy related to gender equality in the legal profession what would it be?

I know it is crucial to work on fulfilment in various walks of life. Poland boasts a good social system that covers working mothers and allows for year of paid parental leave with benefits and up to three years unpaid child care-leave. This policy creates a stable and predictable environment for women who want to raise families and not forsake their career goals. Unfortunately this is a privilege granted only to women working under the Labour Code. In reality the vast majority of female lawyers are excluded from these regulations. This means they cannot benefit from a family-friendly employment package and must rely on their law firm's discretion. Legal advisors, advocates, notary public who seek fulfilment in their maternal roles are much too often confronted with a difficult decision to choose between their family and their professional life. It is not an easy choice to make and I would strongly advocate extending the shield of social security to mothers in the legal profession. This is a desirable and much anticipated step, for the legal profession and beyond.


Do you feel women are well represented at partner level and in management positions in firms within your jurisdicition?

There are still far less women than men working as partners in law firms. Seeing as the business environment is changing, I believe that law firms too ought to support the professional advancement of women to a greater extent than before.


What initiatives do you have in place at your firm to promote gender equality?

Inclusion, and more specifically women’s advancement, is a top global priority at Dentons. Here in Europe, our women’s advancement committee, consisting of both women and male partners, has recently developed a comprehensive strategy to increase the number of women in partnership and leadership over the next few years. The strategy focuses on communication and role modelling to overcome unconscious bias and build awareness. We also want to offer our key women talent leadership experience and exposure, through mentoring, sponsorship, training, and customized career development plans. Following a Europe-wide working-parents survey, we are now looking to introduce more formalized flexible working and parental benefits.


Do you think your firm compares well to others in your jurisdiction when considering gender equality?

Looking at the percentage of women partners, overall Dentons is on a par with the legal industry average, while here in Poland we are among the leading international law firms in this regard. However, we are conscious that the status quo is not good enough and are very much focused on actively supporting the advancement of more women professionals into leadership positions.


What advice would you give to women in junior positions to encourage them to work towards attaining senior positions?

I would say that they need to look for employers who support the professional growth of women and to be persistent in pursuing their ambitions — they should never give up, work hard, and confidently articulate their expectations and needs, including in the professional environment. Also, in their private lives they need to look for partners who are ready to support them in their professional work.


What do you feel are the biggest obstacles for women in your jurisdiction joining the legal profession now?

The legal profession requires continuous education. Besides, clients expect a high level of availability from lawyers by default. If you are a trusted advisor to a client, this practically means you are available non-stop, even during weekends and holidays. Reconciling this with your private life involves endless juggling for women lawyers, especially in families that are not built on a partnership relation. A career in the legal profession for a woman with a family is not possible without the support of her relatives and without being relieved from the burden of many household chores traditionally perceived as tasks for women. Nor is such a career possible without an adequate policy supporting women careers in the workplace.