Only 9.4% of equity partners in law firms are women, despite equal numbers of men and women entering the profession
Article by Nicky Richmond Guardian Professional,
In the world of big law, equity partnership is broadly equivalent to being on a board of directors. In the top 100 law firms in the UK, just 9.4% of equity partners are women. This is even lower than the percentage of board members at FTSE 250 companies who are women, at 9.6%.
Given that equal numbers of women and men enter the legal profession, why is it that so many women don’t reach equity partnership? The Women’s Business Council – set up to advise the government on how to get more women into executive positions – came up with some interesting conclusions in a recent report.
They reveal an overwhelmingly masculine, patriarchal corporate culture, and point to the double burden of work and domestic responsibilities, the “anytime, anywhere” model of management and, a particular curse in the UK, the long hours working culture wired into city law firms.
A large proportion of women who drop out of law do so because they decide to have a family. Many women feel that they simply cannot combine the demands of life in a law firm with the demands of their families.
It’s little surprise they reach this depressing conclusion; at most law firms it is either full-time or nothing. A law firm may offer a woman a career downgrade to ‘support lawyer’ status but for many the cut in remuneration for part-time working or a lesser role are options not worth considering. Factor in the expense of childcare, and it’s little wonder many women conclude that the high cost simply isn’t worth it.
The goal of a partnership becomes more distant for many women once they decide to have a family. In many firms there is no route to partnership for lawyers who work part time. It just isn’t allowed. This is not only morally wrong, it is nonsensical.
There is no reason why a part-time lawyer – female or male – cannot make an outstanding contribution as a partner in their practice. Critical to a woman’s decision as to whether or not she returns to work following maternity leave must be the availability of flexible working. This means flexibility in both hours and location.
In order for things to change in law firms, firms must prioritise retaining their best people for as long as possible. This could include accommodating requests for part-time or flexible working. Given the demands of clients this isn’t always easy, but in most cases – with a real will on both sides – it can be done.
I work for a law firm that is owned equally between men and women. This is key to the day-to-day operations. A number of our lawyers work on a part-time basis. Some work certain days from home, others are consultants who hardly ever come into the office. We try to accommodate people’s real lives and ultimately, it’s the service to the client that counts.
Equality in the law will not happen on its own. In the 25 years I have been in practice I have seen all sorts of attempts to deal with ‘the women issue’, but evidently none of them have worked. Suddenly, however, it has become clear to City law firms that losing women is losing them money. So now, in line with the government’s recommendations, some of those firms have introduced their own targets for senior women. Money talks, and that’s what will drive the change.