By Heather Cowgill
I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to review the recently published book Raising the Bar: Empowering women through coaching. The author, Nikki Alderson, has almost two decades of experience as a barrister, working at Broadway House Chambers in Yorkshire. Alderson read Law at Balliol College, Oxford University and, after a successful career as a barrister, now dedicates her life to encouraging law firms and Chambers to attract female talent, while also coaching women to achieve their ambitions. Alderson’s focus is on equipping readers with advice and techniques they can use to become more empowered and more successful in their personal and professional lives. Many of these techniques involve setting achievable goals or writing down thoughts to answer direct questions asked to the reader (such as “Are you ready to get clear about your next career move?”), with Alderson’s advice then listed below. For the specific details on the exact exercises, you’ll have to read the book! This review will instead focus on more general aspects of the book, as well as the voice Alderson brings to the discussion on life as a woman in the legal profession.
What Do Others Say About Raising the Bar?
Raising the Bar begins with a collection of extracts from reader’s testimonies praising the book. It certainly fills you with confidence and sets your expectations for the advice and exercises to come. Many of the extracts are from professional women, including partners, barristers, and senior associates. There is a palpable sense of sisterhood, knowing that Alderson is passionate about helping raise other professional women’s aspirations and challenge misconceptions.
Raising the Bar is a satisfying and helpful read, written in Alderson’s reassuring voice. The book is centred around quiet reflection, which makes it the perfect guide for anyone looking for friendly advice. Rather than an angry or critical voice, Alderson uses her personal experiences to impart advice you can trust. At no point do you feel preached at by someone completely disconnected from the challenges professional women face.
“Having recently come across the term “imposter syndrome” for the first time, Shabina, partner in a Law Firm, described feeling relief that it was an actual “thing” because she was not on her own in experiencing those limiting beliefs.”
Alderson frequently uses real examples like this one, from professional women, clients, and colleagues, as examples to help her illustrate her point and show that these issues are faced by women at all stages of their careers. These extracts feel very reassuring - not only are other women facing these problems, but they can be also tackled head on and do not have to become barriers to career progression.
What Issues Does Alderson Discuss?
Throughout her book, Alderson also focuses on the female retention crisis, citing statistics to support her argument.
“In 2019, 52% of new entrants to the solicitors profession are women, down to 29% at partner level, and just 19% equity partners. That’s not to mention the disparity in numbers of female Silks (15%), Judges (28%) and Court of Appeal Judges (21%).”
It isn’t just the lack of female talent in the higher levels of the legal profession Alderson is keen to scrutinise; she particularly discusses motherhood and balancing such a significant life change with a legal career. Motherhood can be a barrier to women rising through the ranks of the legal (and other) profession(s), and Alderson draws on her own personal experiences of “the baptism of fire” upon returning from maternity leave to explore this issue.
“...a female lawyer’s life reveals a daily, and often overwhelming, struggle for career survival, never mind progression”
Such an honest discussion on difficulties faced by professional mothers is a relief. For future lawyers or current working mothers, knowing the reality faced by others is certainly going to dispel some fears. Alderson doesn’t just identify the problem either, she puts forward suggestions for a solution, focusing on flexible working practices, believing it to be a key method of retaining working parents. But Alderson is also clear that, at some stages in her career, flexible working wouldn’t have been possible, especially in her capacity as a trial advocate, where she had to work long hours and be available even outside “office hours”. Instead, she tells the reader to set boundaries, and identify what you will not compromise, be it a work or home commitment. That way, you will know your limits before you overreach yourself.
“To give ourselves the best chance of preserving the image and living with the invidious compromises that we, as parents, inevitably have to make, childcare will have to be in place which is affordable and in which we feel confident.”
Alderson’s Career in Brief
As well as her experiences of motherhood, Alderson begins the first chapter by explaining her career path, from a barrister, working in the Criminal Bar in Yorkshire, seizing opportunities to work abroad in New Zealand, to eventually training as a coach and starting her own business. It’s a frank and open account of life as a barrister, which – to a prospective lawyer – puts you under no illusions of what life in the legal profession can be like.
“The things I witnessed there, and at home, (dealing in the main with child sexual abuse cases), were enough to make me weep, warping my ordinary sense of right and wrong; yet over the years I learnt to adopt the requisite impassive, emotionless veneer.”
Alderson discusses how intense the pressure was; something she only realised when she travelled, in both a professional and personal context. Taking opportunities to work abroad in countries like Jamaica was an escape, and it was travelling that made Alderson aware of how deeply unhappy she was in her current situation. For many women this could be a relatable feeling, and it is both admirable and brave to be so direct with such a wide audience. Not only did Alderson acknowledge her own unhappiness, but she actively took steps to improve her own mental wellbeing, by training as a coach to help others. For that, Alderson has earnt my respect. It is one thing to see how your current lifestyle is affecting your mental state, but it is another to make a positive change as a result, and it is a step that many may never make.
“Whilst you might hear your own internal chatter, it is important to manage your own state and give the appearance of external control and confidence. It takes work, and by working on your own thoughts and words you can practise and develop your game face until it becomes second nature.”
Alderson advises readers to explore the idea that “confidence breeds confidence” and to challenge “imposter syndrome”, the haunting feeling of inadequacy that can follow many successful people. Alderson’s book covers so many issues, including digital distraction, advice on time management, the importance of saying ‘no’, and overcoming perfectionism, to break the cycle that leads to frustration when we set ourselves unrealistic goals. All the advice given, on creating a trusted circle in your work environment, urging the reader to network, as well as encouraging women to approach coaches, is refreshingly simple. It is set out in an accessible way, which is likely to maximise how effective it is at being adopted by readers. Raising the Bar is centred on women’s real experiences and in language that prevents the reader from feeling overwhelmed.
Other Work Similar to Raising the Bar
Alderson also dedicates time in her own book to constantly referencing other women’s work (and occasionally men’s too); Lean in: Women, Work and The Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg and Tara Mohr’s Playing Big: A Practical Guide for Brilliant Women Like You, to name just two examples of the wide range she draws on. Most of the books are other coaching and professional development books, so Alderson is trying to create a work not only full of her own thoughts and advice, but one that signposts additional work that readers could access independently to learn and grow even more, reflecting her honest and sincere motives. By consistently referring to and praising the work of other female authors, Alderson demonstrates her commitment to supporting women.
Underlying Alderson’s work is the genuine desire to help professional women go forwards. Raising the Bar is an excellent example of solidarity between professional women, and hopefully the attitude embodied in this work will be adopted by others. Such an attitude change, as well as attempting to learn the skills and techniques Alderson describes, will make the legal profession a more accessible, welcoming, and all-round better environment for women.