Women at the top of law firms: Merlin Seeman

Merlin Seeman is the managing partner at Hedman law firm, an entrepreneur, a mother of two, and someone who considers it essential to contribute to initiatives that are important to society. That’s why she is part of a small group of entrepreneurs who founded the innovative technology school kood/Jõhvi last year. Merlin is an experienced expert in corporate law, mergers, acquisitions, and fundraising.

She is passionate about advising founders and investors of Estonian and international technology start-ups. Merlin stands for the interests of the technology sector, as she understands the concerns of entrepreneurs while being in the same role herself – she is a co-founder and management board member of the start-up company GDPR Register.

What area of law are you currently working in?

I have built my career mainly on advising on corporate law and mergers and acquisitions. I have become particularly passionate about technology companies and advise founders and foreign funds on cross-border transactions.

What has your journey to partnership in your current firm been like?

From the beginning of my career, I wanted to contribute to the development of a law firm. I was an active contributor and participator in the firm’s day-to-day management. The other partners noticed this and allowed me to become CEO alongside my role as an attorney-at-law. From there, I received an invitation to join the circle of partners. When I started working as an attorney, I did not have a specific goal of becoming a partner. Even though the journey to the partnership was not targeted, my contribution to the work and taking responsibility for and resolving critical issues made it possible.

I started as CEO of Hedman in 2009 and, a year later, became the managing partner. It was a time of significant change – Estonia had been hit by the recession a year earlier and with it came new challenges. We changed the firm’s focus and decided to concentrate on advising start-ups and technology companies. As there was no corresponding expertise in Estonia then, I flew to the United States and spent several weeks in Silicon Valley, meeting start-up founders and investors and learning from the best in the world. I brought back to Estonia the unique knowledge and experience I had gained there.

My career has evolved pretty fast but growing from a specialist to a manager has been a real challenge. I continue to learn and grow every day with my excellent colleagues.

I took a short break from working as an attorney when my first child was born. By the time my second child was born, I was already in the managing partner role, and I didn’t take a career break because my position didn’t allow it. Reconciling work and family life was possible thanks to the support system and help from home.

What are the values of the partner position for you?

The value of the partner position for me is the opportunity to lead the firm’s development. I’m not the person who would be at the beck and call of others. What I have gained most from the partner position is the opportunity for personal fulfilment and new goals to move towards. I like solving challenges, facing them head-on, and being a leader who supports her colleagues and their development.

As a partner at a law firm, I am also attracted to the opportunity to train and develop young future partners. It is a fascinating journey for me to see a young colleague develop into a leader and manager. We don’t learn this at university; you must learn it through practice and daily work. 

Why do you think that, on average, only 25% of the heads of the largest law firms in Estonia are women, even though, on average, 49% of the employees are women?

At the management level, the intensity of work is very high. If you are a mother with two small children, being a partner is a challenging responsibility and not suitable for many. We make our own choices and decisions about how much we can carry. However, this does not preclude women from being ready to take on new roles and responsibilities when the children are older.

I very much hope and expect that when selecting candidates for manager and partner positions, preferences will not be made based on gender but objectively: based on job skills, motivation, and personal qualities.

Societal stances and historical gender roles certainly influence us, but it all starts at home. Girls need to be raised to be ready to take responsibility and be leaders. It is very important to help women be more courageous.

Career management has to be informed, and there could be more career guidance. Each firm manager must ensure that career development starts when a person joins the firm. It is essential to support growth from the start, i.e., from trainee to lawyer and from lawyer to partner.

Do you think increasing the number of women in law firms is essential?

Women are hard-working and more empathetic and can see the different facets of things, which certainly makes for more balanced and diversified leadership. At the same time, we should not do something just because there would be a more significant number of women in law firm management. However, we need to pay more attention to supporting women in every way so that they can grow into partnerships. If a female colleague needs a little more support, we must give it.

Have you ever experienced that a client chooses a law firm based on the presence of a female partner, or have you encountered situations where a female partner or lawyer better meets the client’s expectations? Or vice versa?

This is not something I’ve experienced when firms are chosen for their female partners. Law firms are chosen for the quality of their work and their competencies. The client and the lawyer have to be a good match, and it is more a question of which types of people are suitable for whom.

What is your firm’s attitude towards achieving or maintaining gender balance at the management level?

At Hedman, everyone has equal opportunities and a platform for development. Diversity in the team is crucial to me, and I strive for a balance between female and male experts. If the team is diverse, we can also create a team that fits the client’s needs because we have different competencies, approaches, and experiences. I’m pleased that our efforts have been recognised; for example, Hedman was named one of the top five law firms in the Baltics by the Women in Business Law Awards EMEA as a role model in promoting female entrepreneurship and equality.

At Hedman, we pay great attention to career management. At our firm, everyone has a say in decision-making processes. As a manager, I am inclusive and allow my colleagues to analyse situations and express their opinions. I believe this is how we cultivate the most valuable and long-term colleagues who share the same values, value the same principles and develop them further. As a manager, I also believe it is vital to manage expectations, so my colleagues know what to do to grow to the next level in their careers. It doesn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman if the personal qualities and competencies support growth as a leader.

What can law firms, the Bar Association, and society at large do to increase the level of representation of women in law firm management and shareholding?

It all starts with the individual, who has to express themself and be brave in expressing their ambitions. Support and career guidance are essential for firm managers to take responsibility and initiative in developing a young person. Colleagues must be clear about the prerequisites and the foundations to grow, for example, to be a team leader and then from the head of a department to a partner.

I think the young female lawyers are doing an excellent job today. A community of female lawyers has been put together by talented female lawyers who openly discuss challenges and train themselves to better deal with the issues that arise in their profession and daily lives. 

From the Bar Association, I would look forward to training on softer values – such as time management, self-management, staff management, etc. – to inspire and encourage our colleagues. We must talk more openly about such topics as balance in leadership and partnership and highlight positive examples. This series of interviews is also an excellent initiative. It is imperative to highlight role models and professional excellence from which young colleagues can learn and find ideas to motivate themselves.

What choices would you recommend women starting their careers in law firms today make to advance their careers and realise their potential?

Dialogue is always a two-way act; it is up to individuals to express their wishes, goals, and where they want to go. It is essential to have the courage to communicate them to your manager. As a firm manager, I am responsible for providing career guidance and support so that my young colleagues can set their own goals and directions and be clear about how to get there. For example, we have hired a coach at Hedman to help colleagues identify and achieve their career ambitions.

This article was originally published in the blog of the Estonian Bar Association.

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