“For anybody wanting to progress a career in any profession, it shouldn’t be a matter of shattering the glass ceiling,” says Catherine Wahlberg, managing partner at Warwickshire solicitors, Alsters Kelley. “It should be about taking the ceiling away.”
As one of the youngest female managing partners of a Legal 500 firm, and having a young family of her own, Catherine Wahlberg is in a perfect position to comment on the time-old challenges of progressing in a traditionally male-dominated profession such as law.
“I realise I’m in a minority of women who have been able to progress their careers and have a family at the same time,” she says.
“Because of that, I want other women – and men – to realise they can have that option to balance their work/life too, whether that means working towards senior partnership or fulfilling a support role.
“For me, it’s about developing a culture where people can design their own roles, professionally and personally, to enable them to progress to the level they choose.
“When the traditional, inflexible, structured, glass ceiling is taken away, we’ll see more women making it to the top.”
Catherine left school at the age of 15 with only a handful of O levels and CSEs. After her premature departure from the education system, she took a job with her father before becoming a theatre operating department assistant.
“I needed a greater challenge though. Having left school early, I’d always felt there was more I could do on the academic front. So at the age of 24 I decided to study law,” she says.
Six years later after graduating, completing her training contract and working at another Warwickshire firm, Catherine was headhunted by Alsters Kelley to join their family law department and was offered a junior partnership.
Pregnant at the time, she and her partner Rob decided to swap traditional roles once their daughter was born, with Catherine focusing on her career and Rob becoming a full-time dad.
She returned to work after her maternity leave with new priorities and motivations in life but the same commitment to develop her career:
“When I came back to work after the birth of my daughter, I discovered that 60 per cent of new entrants to law are now female. As a returning mother and partner, I knew then that something in the legal sector would have to change if firms wanted to retain talented people, particularly those with young families.”
Little did she realise her opportunity to have a direct impact on the matter would come along quite so quickly. With the senior partner at Alsters Kelley approaching retirement, a new leader was needed at the firm.
So, after just three years as a partner, and seeing an opportunity to remove traditional glass ceilings, Catherine became managing partner in 2007.
“The prospect of leading the firm was an exciting challenge. And because the role I was taking was a new one – managing partner rather senior partner – I didn’t have to worry about stepping into someone else’s shoes.
“But the other partners were incredibly supportive and shared my vision to make Alsters Kelley the sort of firm that would offer opportunities to everyone – male or female, full or part time, with or without a family,” she explains.
“I looked at the situation I found myself in and thought ‘if I have these needs, then so must everyone else.’ I’d been able to progress my career because I’d been given flexibility in my professional and personal life. Isn’t that the least everyone’s entitled to?
“That was the first flash of the blindingly obvious. There were lots more like that in the early days but that was the one that’s really stuck with me since.
“So we set about some serious changes at the firm. We had to make some difficult and unpopular decisions but it was always with one goal in mind – to develop a team of motivated, professional specialists with a dynamic approach, delivering the right results for our clients.”