How this role model lawyer is blazing a trail for women in the legal industry

Lara O'Reilly
Executive Producer
Norton Rose Fulbright EMEA chair Farmida Bi. Photo: Norton Rose Fulbright

Norton Rose Fulbright EMEA chair Farmida Bi was awarded second place in this year’s HERoes Top 100 Women Executives list. The list, released by diversity and inclusion network INvolve and supported by Yahoo Finance, celebrates women who are leading by example and driving change to increase gender diversity in the workplace. View the full HERoes Top 100 Women Executives list here.

Farmida Bi moved to Britain from Pakistan as a 6-year-old in the 1970s. Growing up, the only lawyers she knew were the ones she saw in courtroom dramas on the TV.

That didn’t stop Bi going on to build a hugely successful international legal career. Bi is EMEA chair of the huge global law firm Norton Rose Fulbright and has been recognised as one of the most powerful British Muslim women in the UK.

“I think if you come from a traditional working-class, Pakistani-Muslim background, as a woman you have a certain role and that wasn’t something that I wanted,” she told Yahoo Finance UK.

“From a very early age [that] made me interested in rights, in a sense of what’s fair and what isn’t, so I decided to become a lawyer when I was about 14-years-old,” she said.

“I decided to do that because I wanted to make a difference; to help people.”

‘I wasn’t going to get married to a suitable boy and have five children very quickly’

Bi studied for a law degree at Cambridge University and went on to train to become a solicitor. She now has more than 20 years of experience, having worked all over the world, with a specialism in capital markets and Islamic finance transactions. The highly accoladed lawyer this year alone was listed as a “leading individual” for Islamic finance and debt capital markets by Legal 500 and was featured as one of The Lawyer’s “Hot 100” leaders.

“I think there was a point when my mother had to accept that I wasn’t going to get married to a suitable boy and have five children very quickly and live the kind of life that she had lived — I think that was a difficult adjustment for her,” Bi said.

Bi’s mother died 20 years ago, but not before she came to visit while Bi was studying for the New York Bar and enjoyed exploring the city for the week.

“I knew that by the time she died, although I wasn’t living the life she had expected for me, she could see I would be OK, that I had a different sort of life and it wasn’t horrible. I think she hadn’t imagined what it could be like going outside the protection of the family,” Bi said.

Bi, too, found herself also feeling she needed to adjust as she climbed up the ladder. Growing up wearing traditional Pakistani clothes, Bi says she “stood out like a sore thumb when it was important to fit in” after she qualified.

“A partner [at the firm Bi was working at], to whom I’m very grateful, said to me, ‘I don’t have a problem with what you’re wearing but I just want you to know that some people do, they won’t take you to meetings, and you’re going to get to a ceiling very quickly — you should just be aware of that’,” Bi said.

While some of her other colleagues in the firm were critical of his advice, Bi said it was the vital push she needed to navigate her way through a city environment that was very white, male and middle-class. She bought herself a new wardrobe.

Now, she acknowledges, attitudes in the industry have vastly improved and there is a wider acceptance “that fitting in is not about how you look — [it’s about] what your values are.”

‘To drive change you have to be open about some of the issues that hold other people back’

But there is still ample room for progress.

“Women are joining firms like ours in [ratios of] greater than 50%, generally speaking nowadays, but they leave before they are promoted to become partners and often [they are] people we really value and don’t want to leave,” Bi said.

A career as a city lawyer is demanding — long hours are the norm and deals tend to be highly pressurised and time-sensitive events. A lack of role models can also discourage women from pursuing law as a career.

Farmida Bi. Photo: NIvan Maslarov

Bi — who has taken the lead on developing Norton Rose Fulbright’s diversity initiatives, including acting as partner sponsor and steering group member for the firm’s women’s network — says she seeks to use her position as a high-profile role model to try to drive change.

For its part, Norton Rose Fulbright has set a target that 30% of members of its committees will be women by 2020. The global executive committee currently comprises 37% women.

“We may not make that target but we have decided we are going to be ambitious going forward and increase that target for the future so we are never complacent,” Bi said. “Every time we think, ‘we have got there now,’ and we stop pushing, the numbers go back.”

Norton Rose Fulbright is also looking to introduce more suitable options for flexible working and parental leave.

“The hopeful thing for the future is that younger men are looking for the same sort of flexibility that women have in the past,” Bi said. “It’s not perfect yet, it’s not exactly the same, but there’s definitely a movement that way.”

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Yahoo Finance is supporting diversity and inclusion network INvolve’s executive role model lists across EMpower, HERoes, and OUTstanding. Nominations for the 2019 OUTstanding role models lists are open.