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Talent strategies can 'attract women to legal careers'

Posted by: Laurence Simons 14/12/12

Diversity programmes should be changed to talent strategies in order to increase the number of women who reach to top tier of UK law firms, according to a group of companies.

Ten firms - Ashurst, Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, CMS, Eversheds, Freshfields Brauckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith Freehills, Linklaters, Reed Smith and Slaughter and May - participated in a ten-week project aimed at discovering a way to accelerate the pace of change in the industry.

The initiative in which the law firms took part was organised by the 30% Club, an organisation that hopes to increase the number of women on boards across the UK in all sectors of business and industry.

Many theories have been put forward for why women tend to be thin on the ground in the upper echelons of private practice firms, with a convincing argument being that a lack of flexi-time means taking on family commitments can preclude advancement in a legal career.

Certainly, it appears that the issue of gender diversity is taking centre stage for many legal companies, with 80 per cent of businesses citing it as a priority for the future.

Ashurst senior partner Charlie Geffen told the Lawyer that his firm has set a realistic target of having 25 per cent of senior management positions being held by women in the coming years.

He added that the industry is "not misogynist", stopping short of noting that, although he doesn't know any women personally, he hears they have their good points and bad points just like anybody else.

"Improving the retention and development of women is key to the future success of all firms. Despite putting measures in place to address gender diversity, it's fair to say that progress in the sector has been very limited," added Mr Geffen.

Allen & Overy senior partner David Morley noted that attracting and retaining the best people, whatever their gender, is crucial to how the legal market develops over the coming years.

Some of the suggestions put forward by the 30% Club include increased scrutiny of workload allocation and yearly diversity evaluations, as well as client feedback.

Deborah Epstein Henry of Flex-Time Lawyers LLC recently suggested that "family reasons remain a significant factor in women's departures" from legal careers and mooted work-life balance initatives as crucial for improving diversity.

Unfortunately, analysts have yet to suggest that the solution to allowing lawyers to combine family and work commitments is an adorable junior litigators' creche where toddlers can wear tiny judge's robes and hit each other with inflatable gavels.