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Diversity changing within law firms?

Posted by: Laurence Simons 19/03/14

Top law firms have traditionally struggled when it comes to promoting women to the top jobs within their organisations, on certain metrics performing even worse than banking and financial services companies. But could this be beginning to change?

Sonya Leydecker is set to become co-chief executive of Herbert Smith Freehills, the UK-Australian firm, later this year, while Penelope Warne - the senior partner of London-headquartered CMS Cameron McKenna - has recently taken up her role.

However, Ms McKenna is the only woman among the top leadership of the UK's 20 biggest law firms, reports the Financial Times.

According to the CMS Cameron senior partner, there are a number of factors in the conservatism of City legal organisations, not least an unwillingness to abandon tried-and-tested models during a period when many aspects of the sector are in flux.

Ms Leydecker expressed her optimism for change in the future but admitted that "deep-seated" issues are holding the industry back from implementing better diversity measures.

"There has been quite a lot of unconscious bias, with people promoting in their own image," she explained.

However, the incoming Herbert Smith Freehills chief is adamantly opposed to positive discrimination and feels that women may not be as motivated by the prospect of management roles as their male counterparts, especially if they have aims to start a family.

Recent research by Eversheds, another London-headquartered firm, on young lawyers' aspirations may confirm this - 77 per cent of male respondents admitted they wanted to make partner, compared to just 57 per cent of their female counterparts.

On the other hand, it may be that the responses of female lawyers are conditioned by the environment in which they find themselves, which may not appear conducive to the development of their career - particularly given the lack of female role models in high-profile positions within top firms.

It is clear that firms need to make cultural changes if they are to ensure talented women can reach the top of the profession.