It was International Women’s Day last week and off the back of recent Legal Business and The Lawyer analysis about female partners and announcements in The Lawyer about the gender pay gap, it prompts some serious consideration around the highly charged issue of gender inequality at the highest level of law firms. It is a thorny issue but here our consultant Benji Field discusses what female lawyers have to contend with.

As a starting point, the stats are fairly shocking. Why is it that most trainee intakes have more females than males, but when it comes to partnership they appear to be the preserve of men? (This year for the first time, The Law Society statistics state the female/male ratio for qualified lawyers is 50.1% to 49.9%.) From our experience of talking to lawyers, the reasons seem obvious and the answer is simple; life. Society has moved on considerably from the stay-at-home mum attitudes where female partners in law firms were not common. Even so, the push to make partner these days tends to happen when lawyers are in their early-to-mid 30s, when (and while it is dangerous to generalise) many people are settling down and beginning to plan a family. We regularly work with female lawyers who are their families’ main breadwinner, but it’s also true that on the whole, female lawyers tend to drift away from private practice as they become more senior. Many go in-house and many leave the profession altogether. Therefore, at the crucial point where all the difficult elements to be in contention to make partner have been navigated, a female lawyer has to then factor in if she can “afford the risk” of having children and roll the dice on making partner, or alternatively make partner and then look to have children.

It is certainly true that when a law firm is recruiting they make a lot of noise about trying to push the percentage of female partners. Many firms have a target of up to 30%. Thankfully, we hear more firms trying to achieve this rather than avoiding hiring candidates who could potentially look to have children in the near future. Despite these well intentioned targets, truth be told, firms are bad when it comes to female partners – there isn’t a female partner who doesn’t have her own war story of the sacrifices she had to make in order to gain a promotion to partnership. Undoubtedly most of these sacrifices are of a personal nature.

Firms are alive to the issue of the genuine dilemmas women have between their career and their personal life and it’s definitely on their agenda. But despite the committees and mentoring available to harvest increased numbers of female partners, and firms’ attempts to implement greater flexible working, there is no overnight fix. It is almost impossible to take law firms seriously when it comes to hitting their own 30% rule when they aren’t applying it themselves to promotions.  For example the magic circle promoted fewer women last year than in previous years, only 17%. The simplest way of addressing the issue is for law firms to practise what they preach and promote more female associates to partner thereby increasing the pool of senior female talent at their firm. But more than this, they need to do more to keep women in the firm through the years after their qualification and help them eliminate what is often a choice between a career and having children.

Despite the difficulties, it would be unfair to say that all firms are tarred with the same brush and that none of them are doing anything to promote the female cause. According to The Lawyer within the Top 100 as a whole 25% of partners are women.  Almost half of the Top 200 firms have over 30% women – these firms must be doing something right. Whether this be the removal of “claw backs” from maternity pay, as CMS did last year or extended maternity pay or even extended paternity pay.

For information on the current partner market please contact [email protected].

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