Women in law: what needs to change

Why are there so few women at the top of the legal profession? Just one in five partners in top-20 firms is a woman, and just eight hold senior management roles in the top 50 firms, despite the fact that more women enter the profession than men. FLUX asked four senior lawyers for their take on the challenges and solutions.

Janet Legrand

Partner, DLA Piper

Janet Legrand was the first woman to be elected to the DLA Piper board, as well as the first woman in any leadership position in the global firm. She was senior partner and chairman of the firm’s board from 2009-12.

The lightbulb moment for me was, as a senior partner at the firm, reading the McKinsey Women Matter research in 2007. The basic thesis was that companies that have two or more women on their board or at senior executive level were empirically more successful. It also observed that if you put the same job description to a man and a woman equally well-qualified for a role, the chances are the woman would look at it and think: “I don’t know if I can do that.” Whereas a man would be thinking: “I can do that, but the money isn’t good enough.”

One would have thought that by the time we reached 2015 things would be rather different – but they are not. We have now reached a stage where women have recognised that this is not where they want to be. The way that firms are organised was established a long time ago, and the status quo works for a large chunk of people. It takes effort to intervene through structural changes to try and change the way things have always been.

But taking control of your own career is important. When you’re at a school, you work very hard, you get good results and people tell you you’re doing very well. There is cause and effect. In the world of work there can be a tendency to work hard, keep your head down, and expect somebody to notice and promote you. But the reality is that people do not necessarily notice you unless you engage.

If you have ambition for leadership then engage with your line manager. Men are better at flagging up those issues; they tend to be better at engaging, and maybe that is because the bulk of leadership in law firms is male.

I was encouraged by my managing partner to stand for election [to the DLA board in 1999]. I had a very clear game plan – I wanted to do it, but just not then. The timing was terrible. I had two small children, one was only 18 months, and my mother had just had a heart attack. However, once the idea was put in my mind I decided to go for it. You have to seize the day.

When I had my first child, I turned to the partnership deed to look for the maternity provisions and there weren’t any. I was the first equity partner to have children. My husband gave up work and became the primary carer. It is striking the number of women in my generation where that is the case.

That has helped me succeed because you can automatically put 120% into the work, but it is not an approach that is sustainable, fair or appropriate for everyone. What firms are struggling with now is a generation where both partners in a relationship have a career that they want to continue and where they want to have a more equal involvement in childcare.”

Linda Jones

Head of employment law, Pinsent Masons

Linda Jones leads Project Sky, a programme established to deliver a better gender balance in the partnership and leadership team, with a target of 30% female partners and a first milestone of 25% by 1 May 2018.

There are a number of factors inhibiting women’s progress to the top. We spend a lot of time talking to our clients about gender diversity and when you look across the entire spectrum we see similar issues. In addition, some of our clients find it difficult to attract female talent in the first place – for example, in the infrastructure and energy sectors – which is a problem law firms don’t have.

And for me, diversity is a pressing talent issue. Our intake was 50-50 men and women when I joined the firm back in 1992, so there is nothing new about having lots of women in the law. But now, 23 years later, we still don’t have anything like parity at senior levels. That is why we need to make interventions.

One issue about the legal profession which is probably more of a problem [than it is for other areas of business] is “presenteesism”, the “long hours” culture and the perceived need to be available for clients 24 hours a day.

Relationship partners could probably do a lot more – talking to clients about what they actually want, rather than making assumptions. It might well be that in some types of work there is a need for somebody to be there all the time; but we need to challenge the assumption that that is always the case. And actually when we talk to clients, they tell us that they like agile working.

So it’s important that we stop making assumptions about what clients want and actually ask them: the answer might be surprising. We shouldn’t assume that they think presence in the office equates to work being done, and we need to start thinking that it might be possible for people to work in a more agile way and for people to be more productive than if they are stuck in front of a desk.

Project Sky started in 2013 when 19.5% of our partners were women. We have got to the position where it’s 22% of partners, and have set ourselves a target of 25% by May 2018. When you have a firm of more than 300 partners, that is quite a challenge.

Of 29 new partners [in the latest round of appointments], 38% were female and that’s the largest proportion to date. It is the result of a sustained campaign to raise this as a business issue. We have many talented women and we need to create an environment where they can progress.

Helen Burton

Partner, Ashurst

Helen Burton joined Ashurst as a partner in 2001, helped set up the firm’s diversity committee in 2005 and its women’s network in 2008. She has two young children.

I’m not sure that the law is any worse than any other profession. I am a banking lawyer, and looking at the banking industry, maybe we are in a better place than they are.

Nonetheless, there are not enough women at the senior end of law firms – about 18% of Ashurst partners are women.

We merged with an Australian firm about 18 months ago and their senior partner, Mary Padbury, is now our deputy chair for the global firm. Having someone in such a senior position as a champion for women really helps. A key issue for women in law firms is the importance of role models.

In areas where there are a lot of senior women – in other words, more than just one or two token women – [the increasing representation of women] tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And, likewise, in areas where there aren’t a lot of senior women, other women may be tempted to think: “I am just going to leave.”

The long hours culture is less prevalent today, but there is still an element of it. There are still some people who think that if you aren’t in the office, you aren’t working. I tend to go home at least once or twice a week to put my children to bed. Then I will work from home. One of the great benefits of technology is that you can work seamlessly from home.

I have a two year-old and a four year-old, and I’m lucky that my husband works from home. I think it is becoming more common for men to do at least half of the family support rather than the old traditional way. He is more able to juggle his work than I am. He will be the first line of call if anything was to happen – for example, if a child is ill.

That means I have to really invest in any other time I have with my children. For instance, the other day I was taking my four year-old son to school in a taxi. The cab driver, a woman, was listening to our conversation and said that my son was very lucky to have a mother like me. I thanked her but had to point out that that was my only “quality time” for the two of us that day.

Elizabeth Lang

Partner, Bird & Bird

Elizabeth Lang is a partner in Bird & Bird’s international employment group. She is the firm’s diversity partner and involved in its social mobility programmes including Pioneer and PRIME.

Some lawyers see partnership as an “all or nothing” situation. So they think if you are going to be a partner, it means giving up all your time. Ironically, from personal experience, I would say being a partner gives you more flexibility. It is demanding but you do have the autonomy because you’re running your own practice.

We run a “buddy” scheme at Bird & Bird which started in Sweden (introduced by the Stockholm managing partner and board member Katarina Åhlberg) in recognition that there are times in one’s professional career when both men and women have family commitments. It is a way of lawyers teaming up on a formal basis with more junior associates to provide continuity to ensure that the client gets what they need, on time, and to enable you, the lawyer, to keep high-quality work alongside having a family.

We also have a very advanced state of agile working. There is absolutely no issue when people want to work from home. We think that the younger generation of lawyers expect that flexibility now.

We do have a high percentage of women in management roles: 30% of our international board; 20% of our non-executive board; and 24% of our heads of country are women. However, 54% of our trainees are female, so there is a reduction as people get into more senior positions.

We’ve just had our first application from a male senior associate who is taking shared parental leave. An increasing number of very competent and ambitious associates want to be able to balance their working and family lives, both men and women.

But we need more role models. Female associates want to see that you can be a parent and [a partner] in a law firm. My youngest child is now 12 years-old. I worked part time for 10 years and tried different combinations of part-time working but always managed to do good-quality work and maintain client relationships. I didn’t feel there was any barrier for my career.

This article first appeared in FLUX magazine, which is a new publication that focuses on the achievements of leading women in the legal industry and is a collaborative project between the Executive Education division of Cambridge Judge Business School and LexisNexis UK.

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