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Most women in law feel their career progress has been hampered by their gender

Posted by: Laurence Simons 13/06/16

More than half of women with jobs in law – 62% – say their gender has hampered their career progress, according to research from specialist legal and compliance recruiter Laurence Simons.
In contrast, only 16% of men felt their gender had ever been a barrier to advancing their career.

These findings, from a survey of legal professionals, are supported by Laurence Simons’ analysis of partner profiles at leading law firms in the UK. This reveals that just 21% of partners at Magic Circle firms are women and 19% of partners at Silver Circle firms are female. Overall, of the 1000+ partner profiles reviewed at leading law firms based in the UK, just 20% are women. 

Graph 1: Proportion of male and female partners in Magic and Silver circle law firms

Research published by The Lawyer magazine in 2013 revealed that just 18.6% of partners across the UK’s top-20 leading firms were women. These new findings suggest that little has changed over the past three years, despite Lord Davies spearheading the issue of gender equality in the workforce in the intervening period. Given it takes three years to boost the proportion of women partners by 1.4 percentage points, at this rate it will take 64 years for male / female representation at the senior level in law firms to be 50:50.

Despite these findings, most legal professionals do not think quotas, whether enforced or voluntary, are the way to ensure gender equality at the highest levels in UK law firms.

Most respondents – 47% – believe quotas are ineffective and that other techniques such as focusing on flexible working arrangements, retention of top female talent and leadership development programmes tailored to women should be deployed.

A further 19% of respondents believe that quotas are effective for increasing gender equality but, nevertheless, should not be used. Reasons for this position include the view that quotas are patronising, anti-meritocratic and discriminatory. A significant minority of lawyers – 25% – advocate enforced quotas.


Graph 2: Legal professionals’ attitudes toward gender quotas in law firms

The attitudes of men and women in the legal profession differ when it comes to quotas. 42% of women would want to see quotas used for ensuring a level of female partnership in firms, whereas this stood at just 16% for men. Overall, neither men nor women are in favour of quotas for female partners in law firms.

Clare Butler, Global Managing Director at Laurence Simons, comments:

“Gender quotas are very much chicken before the egg and to truly solve the problem of gender equality in the legal industry we need to tackle the root causes of the issue, not just tinker with the results of a dysfunctional system. Key to overcoming the gender equality problem is setting up a forum in law firms, and amongst legal teams, where women feel comfortable discussing the attitudes and practices that might be holding them back. The women working in the UK profession are bright enough to be part of one of the best legal industries in the world, so let’s learn from their experiences and apply these to future generations and create environments women want to be a part of and excel in.”

UK and global comparison

Last year’s report from Lord Davies on gender equality recommended that 33% of board members at FTSE 350 companies should be female by 2020. With four years to go, law firms have significant progress to make in order to reach this level of diversity, in terms of partners.

A report published by Grant Thornton in March 2016, showed the UK is below the global average when it comes to promoting women to senior jobs, coming below the likes of Russia, China and Italy – just 21% of senior management roles were held by women in 2016. This means the UK legal profession is marginally worse than promoting women to leadership than the UK average.

Clare Butler, Global Managing Director at Laurence Simons, comments:

“Just 20% of partners in top UK law firms are women and although this statistic must urgently be improved, the UK generally is doing poorly when it comes to senior women in industry. Of course, this is no excuse for a lack of gender equality, but puts the industry in the broader business context. Two findings from our research are particularly concerning for me. The first is that 62% of women report being hampered in their careers by their gender. Second is the rate at which the legal industry is progressing in terms of gender equality. At the current rate of change we will only reach a stage where there are roughly equal numbers of men and women partners in 64 years, taking this achievement outside of our professional lifetimes – if we get there at all.

Many of the top law firms are implementing initiatives and these now need to go beyond attracting, nurturing and retaining diverse talent. It’s also about attitudes through the educational process. For example, Linklaters’ London office works with local girls’ schools to encourage working aspirations. Targeting a later point in women’s careers, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer has a mentoring scheme for women in the business which focuses on overcoming challenges as well as the soft-skills needed for leadership. By targeting all these touch points with women and girls we can start to make a difference and hopefully bring forward the date at which we can claim true equality in our UK legal professional.”


See here for source.
Read Lord Davies’ review here.
See here for source.

Laurence Simons has recently launched a Women in Law Brand with the aim not only to strive for equality in the workplace but also to celebrate female achievement and the successes resulting from the work of so many thousands of female lawyers around the globe. Laurence Simons has a number of exciting events targeted at women in law jobs over the coming months. Get in touch via or 020 7850 6174 for more information.

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