The gender issue: women in law

Gender diversity has long been an issue within business and the legal sector is no exception. At entry level, women are more than adequately represented, making up almost 60% of admissions between July 2012 and July 2013, yet this is not translating into partner promotions as women continue to be woefully underrepresented at the senior end of the legal spectrum.

Firms attribute this to a number of different factors ranging from hard work-life balance and working hours, and the allure of in-house, through to women being less likely to aggressively pursue partnership than men and not having enough female role models to inspire and mentor them.

Of the top 20 UK-headquartered firms, women represented only 28.6% of all UK partner promotions in the period 2008 to 2014. This is an improvement on the 22% in the midst of the financial crisis, but progress has slowed in the last year, with female partner promotions declining by 5% in the last year (33% to 28.5%). Female promotions at firms such as Ashurst, Clifford Chance and Freshfields hover around 20%, and Taylor Wessing are the worst performers at 12%. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there have been years at many of these firms when no women have been made up at all.

There are, however, flickers of light: a number of firms, such as Clyde & Co, Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP), Bird & Bird and Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF), have achieved a 30% female partner promotion rate since 2008, and almost 50% of partner promotions at Irwin Mitchell since 2008 have been female. Norton Rose Fulbright, traditionally a poor performer in this area having only promoted one female partner in between 2008 and 2010, have markedly improved their statistics since then so that women are accounting for 37.5% of promotions since 2008.

Despite the overall statistics leaving a lot to be desired, new initiatives are being devised in an attempt to overcome this particular hurdle. Several law firms have set gender diversity targets: Linklaters have set a goal of 30% female membership to its executive committee and international board; Pinsent Masons and Ashurst have followed suit, seeking to have women taking up at least 25% of partnership and management positions respectively by 2018. In spite of their recent female-free promotion round, BLP are aspiring to a 30% female partnership by 2018 and, as reported in The Lawyer, are even allegedly instructing headhunters to focus on female talent in areas where they have headcount.

Specific targets aside, firms have launched diversity initiatives to encourage women to embark upon the partnership path and to ensure they are on a level playing field with their male counterparts. HSF introduced a programme in October of this year to give career advice to talented junior female associates, as well as coaching female salaried partners hoping to make equity, and Olswang have encouraged their partners to attend training sessions on unconscious gender bias.

The government is also playing its part with regards to the age-old concern of childcare: UK regulations are to be introduced in April 2015 to allow parents to share 12 months of parental leave after the birth of a child. Despite the government predicting that between only 2% and 8% of fathers will adopt this scheme, this has been welcomed by much of the legal community, with 40% of partners believing this initiative will help in retaining vital female talent. These measures, allied with support networks such as PRIME, which focusses on diversity more broadly, and the emergence of the female network Women In Law London (WILL) suggest that awareness of these issues and the determination to fix them is getting stronger.

Whilst there is no doubt that this activity is well-intentioned, law firms must ensure that the message consistently conveyed is one of inclusion and a genuine desire for prosperity through diversity, and crucially not one of cynical quota filling to please clients and the wider market. Through career support and coaching, law firms must help women to feel encouraged and empowered to apply for partnership, and to realise that traditional obstacles such as childcare and historical (and, in many firms, current) male dominance need no longer stand in their way of achieving their partnership goal. This, nevertheless, must be balanced with maintaining a strong culture of meritocracy to ensure that only the best talent, both female and male, is recognised and rewarded.

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