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UK boasts highest proportion of female partners in Europe

Posted by: Laurence Simons 27/02/12
  • 16% of partners in Magic Circle law firms in the UK are female, the highest proportions in Europe
  • Two thirds of female lawyers state their gender is a barrier to their success
  • Flexible working practices for partners and quotas may be required to redress gender imbalance at the top level

The UK and Holland have the highest proportion of Magic Circle partners in Europe – but still only 16%.

Research by international legal recruiter Laurence Simons, which analysed the gender of partners in all the Magic Circle law firms across Europe shows just under one in six is female in the UK. Holland tied for first place. Spain had the lowest proportion of female partners, with just 6.3%, while 9.6% of partners in Germany are women and 13% in France.

Lucinda Moule, managing director of Laurence Simons said: “Given that women make up less than one sixth of Magic Circle partners in the UK, it might come as some surprise that this is the joint-highest proportion in Europe. It’s certainly good news that the UK is leading the way in ensuring gender diversity at the highest level, but ultimately these results demonstrate the desperate need for top-tier firms to make better provision for the promotion of women. The fact that European nations are so far behind emerging economies such as China – where 28% of partners are women despite the population comprising 119 men for every 100 women – demonstrates antiquated promotion practices are entrenched in the developed economies of Europe.

Back in 2010, Allen & Overy looked to improve the supply of women to top positions by taking the welcome step of offering their partners the chance to work part-time and to take extended leave during school holidays without financial penalty. These measures are certainly what’s required to improve the current situation, but unfortunately they have not borne fruit in the last two years. “One part of the problem is that providing the option to spend more time out of the office doesn’t necessarily change promotion practices or expectations of partners. If there are still so few women at the top, it could be that quotas are the answer. Failure to actively address the massive gender imbalance among partners would see the legal industry continue to waste a huge amount of female talent”.

Of all the Magic Circle firms, Linklaters has the highest proportion of female partners – 23.5%. The firm has in place a series of measures designed to help employees take ownership of their own careers, including offering flexible working hours to employees in senior positions. According to Laurence Simons’ research, one in seven men and one in nine women consider flexible working important in a new role.

Felix Hebblethwaite, global diversity manager at Linklaters LLP said: “In the UK we have developed a Gender Action Plan to focus our efforts on ensuring we retain a greater proportion of our female lawyers and increase the number of women within our partnership. The Plan recognises that flexibility is a big challenge for our firm and we take care to encourage all of our people to adopt a more flexible approach to their work. We also seek to provide inspiration to female employees by inviting high profile female speakers to describe their route to the top of their profession and to give tips on career progression. As a firm, we also focus on providing support and development opportunities to our female lawyers through targeted learning and to all of our partners through unconscious bias training.

When Laurence Simons asked 320 lawyers whether they felt their gender was a barrier to success, 62% of female respondents stated they did. 16.5% of male respondents also stated they felt their gender was prohibitive to their career progression.

Lucinda Moule continues: “There’s clearly a vast difference between male and female lawyers when it comes to the impact they feel their gender has on their chances of success. Almost two thirds of female lawyers feel they are inhibited as a result of their gender. What’s worrying about this is that even if the expectation of long-hours for partners remains, women don’t feel they will necessarily be given the opportunity to choose their own career path. This is primarily a result of promotion practices assuming women are generally more likely to prioritise their domestic lives over their professional ones. In my opinion professionals being considered for promotion should be treated on an individual basis.

It’s interesting to note that one in six men felt their gender was a barrier to their success. This highlights the delicacy of the balancing act between championing the promotion of more women and appearing to engage in positive discrimination. Again, this highlights the need for a focus on personal performance above all other factors in making promotion decisions”.

Improving the proportion of female partners is also a priority outside the Magic Circle, though women continue to be underrepresented relative to the proportion of their intakes. One City firm, Bird & Bird, where 23% of partners are female boasts a relatively balanced Partnership regarding its gender split when compared to the Magic Circle.

Bird & Bird chief executive David Kerr commented: “Over many years we’ve been trying to make the partnership really attractive to our female assistants; after all, slightly more than 50% of the intake into the profession is female, so it would seem a bit strange if we were not trying to adapt things to retain this figure. I’ve always been a fan of having female partners in key leadership and management roles, too”.

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