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Why are women still struggling to reach law firm partnership?

Posted by: Laurence Simons 19/11/14

Despite significant strides made over gender equality in the 20th Century, the legal profession still has a long way to go before it achieves a genuine balance. In fact, the gender gap for professional and technical workers has seen Britain ranked 66 out of 126 countries for equality by the World Economic Forum in 2014.

A host of indicators show that early stage legal careers offer relatively equal outcomes for male and female lawyers. However, the same variables show that equality between male and female lawyers diverges significantly as they progress further into their working lives. The legal profession must therefore evolve more quickly if it is to prevent another generation of women from feeling underrepresented and underappreciated.

A number of law firms such as Linklaters and Berwin Leighton Paisner are working hard to nurture and retain their female legal talent by innovating in their working practices and setting gender targets. Firms that ignore the issue risk losing out on the great potential female lawyers can bring to their business.

Ongoing Equality Issues in the Legal Profession

Law firms have got better at hiring male and female lawyers in more equal numbers especially when it comes to trainee recruitment and the employment of junior lawyers.

The Law Society’s recent annual report identified that females now make up on average 60 per cent of a firm’s new trainee intake. Efforts to improve the balance of male and female lawyers beyond the trainee level have also borne fruit with almost half of associates being female.  However, disparities in the way men and women are treated still exist beneath the surface.

Slightly less visible than headcount but still of great importance, pay is probably the most blatant area of inequality. The Law Society’s latest research in 2014 showed that women are paid a third less than their male counterparts across all areas of practice.

The other problem area for equality in law firms is the lack of female lawyers at the highest rungs of the career ladder. Women currently make up less than thirty percent of partners.

Reasons for the Dearth of Female Law Firm Partners

There are several explanations for lack of female partners; the first may simply be a legacy issue. In the time it has taken for law firms to implement change many women lawyers have already made their exit from the profession. Therefore, the pool of women lawyers still practicing who are experienced enough to take on the most senior roles is far smaller than that of male lawyers.

An underlying reason for female lawyers leaving before they reach partnership level has been that attaining an appropriate work-life balance has consistently proven more difficult for females. Billable hours are still the primary method by which performance is judged and women with families have found this significantly more difficult to reconcile with their traditional role as child-carer. It will be some time before a judgement can be made as to whether the flexible working policies designed to mitigate this problem have proved successful.

Another less tangible explanation for the lack of female partners may be the existence of unconscious bias among those doing the recruiting. Partners are traditionally male and white and are therefore theoretically more likely to choose new partners based on an affinity bias i.e. selection based on their own personal similarities. If true, this means that the current make-up is unlikely to change naturally and may require direct intervention such as gender quotas.

Practical Initiatives to Reduce Inequality

Despite these issues, there is hope for the future. The current generation of junior female lawyers have a much greater chance of making partner than the female lawyers that preceded them. Many law firms are introducing measures to help stem inequality - ten London law firms including Linklaters, DWF and Berwin Leighton Paisner have introduced a target of 30 per cent female representation at partner level by 2018. Meanwhile, groups such as Women in Law are working to promote and further the advancement of women in legal profession.

In addition, there is far greater awareness of the need to promote women to senior roles throughout business. The 30% Club for example has been set up with the aim of ensuring that females occupy 30 per cent of board positions in FTSE 100 companies by the end of 2015. Their work appears to be paying off as the initial figure of 12.6% in 2010 had risen to 22.8% by 2014.