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International Women’s Day: what does the legal profession look like for women in 2020?

updated on 10 March 2020

After the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act received royal assent in 1919, it began to pave the way for women to become lawyers for the first time in the UK. Much has been achieved since then, but as in many professions, women working within the legal sector still face many distinct challenges.

Six years ago Dana Denis-Smith found the below photograph in a magazine. Its depiction of partners at law firm Herbert Smith in 1982 shocked her: not only does it depict a single, unnamed woman in a mass of be-suited men, but the picture was also taken within her own lifetime. For some this discovery might have been dismissed as a sad reminder of the unequal status quo. However, for Denis-Smith it was inspiration, spurring her to uncover the history of women in the legal profession and to ask whether things really have improved.

The good news is that there have been significant advances. Women couldn’t be members of the Law Society or Inns of Court until 1919 when Parliament forced the doors open with the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. Unfortunately, even steps as big as this do not mean that the job is done. “Now women can get into the legal profession, but their barrier is to stay and to rise to the top.”

While The First 100 Years chronicles the events of the past, Denis-Smith is clear on what she thinks about the future of women within the legal profession: “It’s very important for me to distinguish what the space is for women now, and to enable women to achieve their ambitions today, rather than fight the battles of the past. By understanding our history, we will be able to map out what we want from the future.”

Slow progress

Change doesn’t happen overnight. “The first thing that surprised me about doing the project is just how slow the pace really was. The story of the first hundred years is really the story of the last 30 years because nothing much happened for about 60 years”, Denis-Smith notes. “It’s funny because men in the 1920s were so worried about women coming into the legal profession and immediately taking over! But history teaches us that change is very gradual and you really have to build momentum.”

"Now that women are the majority, it’s our chance to define what the legal profession can do, and what the profession of the future will be."

According to the Law Society, women have represented more than 60% of entrants into the solicitor profession since 1990. Yet while just over half of practising solicitors are female, woman account for only 30% of partners in private practice. The fact that women outnumber men entering the legal profession is significant and Denis-Smith’s message for the next generation is that there is strength in numbers.

“Now that women are the majority, it’s our chance to define what the legal profession can do, and what the profession of the future will be. What will make us proud to be lawyers? I don’t think that question is being asked. It’s not about how we can dislodge power from men, it’s asking what the nature of the power we want is,” she argues. Now that getting into the profession isn’t a problem, Denis-Smith asserts that the focus should move towards creating long-term and fulfilling careers for women.

Flexible working – an obvious solution?

So, what steps can law firms take to support women in their businesses? Looking at the make-up of many law firms, it’s clear that there is a distinct level at which many women disappear after having children. Until issues of childcare and flexibility are addressed, women can too easily be held back from the top.

Divorce lawyer Ayesha Vardag recently told The Times that “It’s like [maternity rules have] been set up by men in the 1950s. You go off and do your stuff with your baby and you should be back with your baby all of the time and, if you’re coming back, you better come back full-time or we’re not interested.” Her argument that the future of maternity leave is to encourage women to go back to work as soon as possible, even if it’s just for half a day a week, might raise a few eyebrows, but it also suggests that there must be a formal element of flexibility for parents in the workplace. In fact, Vardag’s own experiences of maternity leave influenced her decision to offer employees at her firm superb childcare when returning to work at any stage between three months and a year.

At last year’s LawCareersNetLIVE event, the panel of partners discussed the importance of work-life balance for everyone, not just parents. Speaking about flexible working, Sarah Porter from Baker McKenzie stated: “I think the focus is always on children and I don’t think it should be. People have other hobbies – for example, they may have choir practice or play football. Everyone has a right to think about what is immoveable in their life”. She added: “Ultimately, we work to have a life.”

‘Flexible working’ or ‘agile working’ have been buzzwords in the industry for some years now and several big names have already shown their commitment to embracing it.

In 2016 international giant Baker McKenzie rolled out agile working across its global network, while in 2017 Morgan Lewis allowed its UK and US lawyers to work from home for up to two days a week. International firm Reed Smith (which won the Commendation for Diversity award at the LawCareers.Net Training & Recruitment Awards in 2018) has a Women’s Initiative Network to help its members navigate career transitions and challenges, such as work-life balance and partner promotions.

Margaret Campbell is a partner at Reed Smith and leads the network in the EMEA. She explains: “The network focuses on sponsorship, mentoring and networking programmes to develop, retain, and advance talented women lawyers at critical times in their careers, including women who are returning to work after having children. A key initiative last year was to further develop structures to support working parents on their dual paths to advancement and fulfilment at home with an enhanced shared parental leave package and a formal ramp up programme on returning to work.”

The network runs a range of activities for women in the early stages of their careers, from panel sessions with internal and external speakers talking about the different routes to combining life and work, to networking events which aim to introduce women to clients and people that they might have a professional working relationship with in future. It also provides women with appropriate careers supervisors, with the explicit purpose of helping to retain women within the firm and supporting women to make partner. The firm is an active member of the 30% Club and aims to have at least 30% women in the partnership.

Reed Smith’s agile working policy was introduced in 2017 and offers a variety of different working arrangements, benefitting not only employees with children, but also those with caring obligations and individuals with disabilities. As Campbell says, it’s about being open to what people want to do and organising people so that they have the support they need to continue to provide excellent advice to their clients.

Entering the legal profession – what do students think?

While many lawyers balance work and family life, law student Paris already faces problems of childcare and parental leave as she is raising a young family alongside her studies. She told us of the difficulties she faces: “All of the postgraduate qualifications I am looking to undertake in 2020 require attendance from 9:00am to 6:00pm, but most childcare facilities only cater until 5:30pm. In this day and age, I don’t think that being a woman does not alone present barriers but being a woman with other commitments certainly has the potential to.”

We asked aspiring women lawyers if they considered their gender as an obstacle to pursuing a legal career. Law graduate Maaya described her experiences of attending the Spark21 conference in 2018: “The speakers observed that if you put the same job description to a man and a woman equally well-qualified for the role, the chances are that the woman will look at it and question her abilities, while the man will feel much more confident. This mental barrier exists at entry level for many aspiring lawyers and from what I have seen has impacted many talented applicants.”

Maaya also explained that she always checks a firm’s diversity statistics before applying to it and makes it a habit to question senior associates or partners about the firm’s diversity initiatives at the end of an interview. Paris agrees with this sentiment, echoing that if a firm had low statistics for female partners, it would suggest to her that she may be an unsuitable candidate and she would not apply.

“If I am not able to see a commitment towards diversity, it really does put me off a firm as I want to work somewhere where I am valued, respected and where those around me recognise me by my merit, rather than my gender."

Another law student recalled asking a City lawyer what his firm was doing to improve the male to female ratio at a senior level, to which the lawyer replied that it was not his fault that women didn’t like to play golf and did not have the opportunities to interact with senior members of the organisation and therefore progress. “To put it simply, I was outraged and did not apply to that firm,” she explains. “If I am not able to see a commitment towards diversity, it really does put me off a firm as I want to work somewhere where I am valued, respected and where those around me recognise me by my merit, rather than my gender.”

Instances like this are especially shocking in their undisguised sexism and it is disheartening to hear of senior lawyers speaking with such archaic convictions to women embarking on their careers. Firms that openly display these sentiments to prospective candidates could put off an entire generation of women from applying, therefore exacerbating the situation and potentially allowing these kinds of beliefs to fester.

Gender pay gap reporting

In 2018 the government implemented compulsory gender pay gap reporting, which requires firms with 250 or more employees to publish the average gap in earnings between men and women: 2020 marks the third year that companies are required to report this data.

In the previous two years, many law firms have been criticised for excluding partners from their pay gap reporting on the basis that equity partners are not salaried employees and therefore not compulsory to report. This meant that high-earning men were omitted from reports, causing firms to appear more equal than they actually were. These discrepancies were noted by MP and 2019 chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee Maria Miller who urged firms to be as transparent as possible.

Several law firms, including magic circle firms Clifford Chance and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, did include partners in their recent reporting.

In Clifford Chance’s latest gender pay gap report it revealed that, on a mean basis, women were paid on average 68.9% less than men in 2018. Taking the firm’s partners out of the equation, the firm revealed an increase of 1.5% in this gap for 2018, with the report highlighting that, on a mean basis, women were paid on average 21.8% less than men in 2018.

Also including partners in their 2019 report, Freshfields revealed an improvement in its mean pay gap, with women being paid 18.4% less than men in 2018. Compared with the firm’s 2017 mean average of 34.1%, this is a positive development. However, when partners are omitted from the data, this mean average falls quite significantly to 5.7% (13.9% in 2017), showing the continuing prevalence of greater pay disparity at senior levels.

The data from both firms which includes partners shows just how misleading this reporting can be when other firms manipulate the figures by omitting their highest earners.

The current median pay gap in the United Kingdom is 18.4% (reported in August 2019) and in July 2019 it was reported that the gender pay gap had actually grown between 2018 and 2019 at hundreds of private companies.

With the latest round of pay gap reporting due on 4 April, it remains to be seen what the overall image will be across the United Kingdom.         

For young women looking to enter the profession, figures such as these could paint a gloomy picture.

One non-law student told us that she is interested in seeing firms’ gender pay gap reports and would check before applying. “Although much improvement has been made in recent years, the legal industry is still male-dominated, which is why I always look at what firms have done to improve their diversity,” she confides. “Knowing that firms just report their gender pay gap would reassure me that going into a future career in law, would be treated fairly and remunerated equally.”

Structural problems

The main obstacles in women’s progress to senior positions are still “rigid and inflexible structures” argues Denis-Smith. One of her solutions is an end to the ‘salaried partner’ position, where senior women often find themselves side-lined. A salaried partner is technically a non-equity partner – this means that although they earn the salary of a partner, they have no voting power and are therefore not adequately represented at the top.

For Denis-Smith another key solution would be to change attitudes towards assessment during training schemes. She questions how potential is measured in candidates, arguing that women are misjudged and incorrectly assessed on schemes. “We need to change the idea of leadership within the profession and how we measure it from the point of entry in the law firm”, she maintains.

"We need to change the idea of leadership within the profession and how we measure it from the point of entry in the law firm."

These kinds of structural changes are not easy to implement and may require employers to make a concrete commitment to gender equality. Quotas are controversial but they do force employers to directly address imbalances and make strides in order to progress quickly. Denis-Smith is an advocate for quotas, arguing that self-regulation can only take us so far. The point has been made by several other high-profile lawyers and campaign groups, including the Fawcett Society. Its chief executive, Sam Smethers, told The Guardian that “Equality won’t happen on its own. We have to make it happen.”

Moving forward to an equal picture

The Law Society has been taking stock of the situation in the legal profession, surveying lawyers, judges and legal support colleagues and holding roundtable discussions about issues affecting women. Themes raised include unconscious bias, women from BAME backgrounds, flexible working, and standards of behaviour.

When she was in office in 2019, former Law Society President Christina Blacklaws stated: “For future female solicitors to reach senior leadership positions at an equal rate to men, the work culture of law firms needs to adapt to suit both men and women. As a profession which strives to uphold justice, the legal sector needs to be at the forefront of the fight for equality in the workplace.”

According to current Law Society President Simon Davis – who took over from Blacklaws as the 175th president in July 2019 – the Law Society “will continue with the high-profile campaign led by Christina Blacklaws for greater diversity and gender equality”.

As Denis-Smith points out, progress is slow. Some firms are getting it right and making active decisions about the importance of supporting the women in their businesses. But it’s also clear that more must be done as we move away from the photograph that she discovered in 2014. The legal landscape is gradually changing. But, in the age of increasing collective consciousness about issues of diversity and equality, the question remains: how many more years will it take to get a truly representative picture?

Bethany Wren and Olivia Partridge are, respectively, content and events manager and content and engagement coordinator at LawCareers.Net.