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Gender diversity in law: dawn of a new era or a case of the old guard?

updated on 27 May 2014

Affinity groups, targets, mentors; there are many ways that firms are trying to address the disparity between the number of male and female partners. But is it working? We speak to senior women from a variety of firms to find out their views on the road to equality, the initiatives their firms are employing and how the female partners of the future can help themselves. 

The feminist movement seems to be enjoying a renaissance at the moment, with powerful campaigns such as No More Page Three, the Everyday Sexism project, women on banknotes and mothers on marriage certificates all making headway. There is a general sense that after a period of complacency, the movement has been re-energised by an awareness that the battle for gender equality is not yet won. However, whether the egalitarian ideals that suffuse these campaigns have also reached that most traditional of professions, law, remains to be seen.

For many years now, the great majority of law firms have each had a diversity policy in place, to guide recruitment and promotion behaviours, among other things (although as is so often the case, good intentions on paper don't always translate to practical action). Nevertheless, these issues are on the collective radar and, in just the past few weeks, there have been numerous mentions in the legal press of firms tackling gender diversity issues. Here are but a few:

  • Women in magic circle partnership promotion rounds increases from 14% in 2013 to 30% in 2014 (Law Gazette, 23 April)
  • Allen & Overy may introduce a 20% female partnership by 2020 target, despite already having the highest number of female partners among magic circle (The Lawyer, 16 May). 
  • Diane Burleigh, head of CILEx, questions whether advancement of women in the profession has occurred at all, given their absence from senior positions (Legal Cheek, 22 May)
  • Six law firms are named in The Times Top 50 Employers for Women 2014, as part of Opportunity Now, the workplace gender campaign from Business in the Community (The Times, 22 May (paywall)).

In our own, recently launched Insight section, the disparity between men and women at partner level is clear with just one glance - of the 40 firms for which we have data for 2013, just two firms saw female partnership get over the 50% mark (well done Fisher Meredith (54%) and Weightmans (65%)). The figures were worse still in 2012 - not a single firm represented in the graph hit 50% female partnership rate. However, as expected, when you consider all lawyers - ie, partners, associates and trainees - the numbers are much more evenly balanced. In fact, at 27 of the 39 firms, women outnumber men.

Law firm gender diversity statistics 2013

What do these figures tell us? It is clear that the number of women coming up through the ranks is substantial, and they are gaining training contracts and going on to be retained. So what’s happening at the top of these legal organisations? Where are all the women? And what are firms doing (if anything) to redress the balance?

Let's get together

Affinity groups, mentoring/sponsor programmes, client and other networking events - these are just some of the ways in which firms are helping to address the issue of equality and support women within their organisations.

Baker & McKenzie is proud if its long history of diversity, including being the first major global law firm to appoint a female head when Christine Lagarde became "Madame Chairman". It runs many affinity groups - BakerLGBT/Allies, BakerBalance, BakerEthnicity, BakerOpportunity and, of course, BakerWomen. Justine Thompson, inclusion & diversity manager at the firm, describes a recent initiative: "We have a very active network in BakerWomen, which includes both men and women by the way! Something we ran to coincide with International Women’s Day this year was a campaign to highlight inspirational female role models in firm, asking people to nominate women who had inspired them. It was a great way to celebrate the success of female lawyers and non-lawyers within the firm. One of our IP lawyers recalled a day during her training contract when her supervisor (a senior partner) left work to bake her son a racing car birthday cake, showing it is possible to be a highly successful lawyer and a successful, hands-on mum."

This year's winner of the Commendation for Diversity at the 2014 LC.N Awards, Hogan Lovells, has historically been very strong in terms of female leadership - legacy firm Lovells was one of the first in London to have a female managing partner. The firm has a Women's Network, designed to enable women to connect with, and learn from, each other, including by way of a mentoring programme, client events and a guest speaker series, where women from all professions (particularly business and politics) come to the firm to share their experiences. Alison Unsted, senior manager of diversity and wellbeing, says: "It has been very successful. The speakers offer insight into their personal and career journeys, views on gender quality and so on. And it really shows that these aren’t super women – they’re just normal humans, like the rest of us!"

"One of our IP lawyers recalled a day during her training contract when her supervisor (a senior partner) left work to bake her son a racing car birthday cake, showing it is possible to be a highly successful lawyer and a successful, hands-on mum."

Another former winner of the LC.N Commendation for Diversity, Shoosmiths has again secured a top spot in the Diversity League Table, as the Top 100 Firm with the highest levels of ethnic and gender diversity. Danielle Owens, Shoosmiths' head of recruitment, says that there is no one way of implementing equality and diversity "good practice" - the firm instead relies on several techniques, including affinity groups: "They can certainly support our broader objectives for a diverse workforce, and anything that encourages networking, communication and collaboration will help. In 2012 the firm set up the Working Parents Group, which comprises male and female staff who have recently experienced parenthood and understand first-hand the emotional and practical issues that arise from a new family."

Sarah Pearce, a partner in IP group of the London office of Edwards Wildman Palmer UK LLP, takes the view that there is certainly a place for affinity groups, but not to "exclusive effect". She explains: "I think that any such group must think not in a vacuum regarding women's issues, but rather think how those issues may affect men and men's interests. Without this, you lose their support and buy-in, which ultimately is what is needed if anything is going to change."

Alison agrees, and makes the point that it’s not just about getting women together for support: "We do want to involve more men, as it can sometimes feel like we’re preaching to the converted. We must engage with men so that they understand the issues too."

More broadly, Edwards Wildman addresses the issue of gender imbalance in a variety of ways. "We have a diversity policy and a committee to oversee its enforcement," explains Sarah. "We meet regularly as a group and are constantly striving to improve diversity within the firm. I host regular dinners for women in the London office and we often hold meetings/calls of our global collaborative group and seminars covering an issue which encourages the involvement of the male partners too. We are currently pursuing a project with a view to increasing the number of women in senior roles - I play an active role in the committee driving this forward."

Hitting those targets

A&O is not alone in setting gender targets (see news story above). Hogan Lovells' global diversity strategy includes the following prescription: 25% women in partnership by 2017, 30% by 2022 and 30% in management by 2015 (a target that has already been met). Alison comments: "The targets helped to really focus the mind on our future partner pipeline; these are not quotas, we're not recruiting or promoting on anything other than merit, but we are looking at redressing the balance."

"The targets acted internally as a call to action."

Similarly, in 2012 Baker & McKenzie introduced Global Aspirational Targets for gender diversity - increasing the percentage of female equity partners to 30%, the percentage of female junior equity partners to 40% and the number of leadership roles occupied by females to 30%. Justine says: "The targets acted internally as a call to action. The BakerWomen leadership group and I put together a very comprehensive action plan, which focuses on taking practical steps to ensure that we're retaining our top female performers, nurturing their talent and trying to understand the differences in how men and women work."

Danielle comments: "There is always more work to do, but I am proud of the achievements we have already made; 35% of our partnership and 69% of our total workforce is female." Certainly, having strong role models within the firm helps: "It develops a culture that is receptive to the promotion of top talent. Our chief executive, Claire Rowe, trained with the firm and has herself returned to work following periods of maternity leave."

Follow the leader

The overall impression seems to be that where once law lagged beyond some of the other professional services, it is now surging ahead when it comes to diversity. "Law was a follower, but I think in many respects it’s leading the way now," comments Alison. "The change has been fast-paced, much more so than some other sectors. And it’s linked to all types of diversity - for example, our LGBT network, Pride, is now very active and engaging lots of people from the firm. This is a reflection of the shift in culture within firms."

In terms of whether law firms are out in front on these issues, Danielle thinks that the legal sector benefits from is the fact that it appeals to female students and graduates: "With around 62% of all law undergraduate students women, at Shoosmiths we receive more applications from women than men for our graduate schemes. The challenges we face in the profession are around retention and career progression, but I feel that we are heading in the right direction." She makes the point that publication of the Diversity League Table and the SRA’s new requirement that all firms publish their diversity data help to raise awareness of "best practice across the profession, with many firms now taking steps to build a talented workforce within an inclusive environment".  

On the point of why there continue to be many fewer women at partner level, Alison suggests some reasons: "There are structural issues, around the way professional services firms are very client facing, with lawyers needing to be available 24/7. Societally, women are still perceived as the primary caregivers, and ultimately that can result in bias. But I hope that with things like the forthcoming shared parental leave regulations that  men will be encouraged  to take a bigger role at home and we will continue to see a shift in attitudes. While we can’t change society as a whole, we can address attitudes in our own organisation."

What lies ahead?

Clearly, strides are being made and firms are taking gender issues - along with all the many other strands of diversity - seriously. It does seem, however, that we remain some distance from truly equitable representation at the highest levels of the UK legal profession. How should young women at university and law school feel about their options and career progression?

In Alison's opinion, there has never been a better time to join the legal profession, but complacency is not an option: "My advice would be to do what you want to do. But ultimately, you’re the only person who really cares about your career, so take control of it. No one will promote you just because you’re a good worker. You need to make it clear that you want it. In fact, I’ve been inspired by the female speakers we’ve had in and have changed my tactics, become more assertive, and it has paid off."

"Commercial law is a tough environment, for men and women, and you need to be realistic about that."

Justine also has a positive message to give to female students: "The legal profession, similar to others in the City, has stepped up and realised that achieving gender equality at the top of the profession is a business imperative. Organisations have engaged with the fact that they need to make sure they are creating environments where women can succeed to the same extent as their male counterparts. So use whatever opportunities you have available to you - grad rec events, vac schemes, networking - to seek out and speak to successful women. Commercial law is a tough environment, for men and women, and you need to be realistic about that. If you have concerns such as whether you have the resilience to succeed, or about balancing work and home, don’t be afraid to ask those questions. Find female mentors, sponsors and anyone who can share their experiences of how to make it work."

Finally, Sarah offers her view from the frontline on what makes being a partner in a City firm so enjoyable - "It is the people and the encouraging, entrepreneurial environment that really makes our firm stand out and, well, makes me look forward to my working day in the office" - as well as some pithy words of advice for those who would follow in her footsteps: "Don't make a big deal of being a woman; work to your best ability at all times and just do it!"

For a detailed breakdown of gender stats in 2012-13, as well as financial and other key information about firms, visit our Firm Insight section.