Women have been able to practice law in the UK for almost a century. Why aren’t there more of them at the top of the legal industry, and how we can help get them there?
Next year, the UK will celebrate 100 years of women practicing law. Hopefully, that occasion will also mark a turning point where the legal industry began to commit appreciable time, resources and energy to one of its most persistent issues – the scarcity of women in positions of authority at law firms and among the judiciary.
A persistent issue
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) reports that women make up 47 percent of entry-level lawyers in law firms, but only 33 percent of women achieve partner status. There is a greater difference for larger law firms of 50 or more partners, which have only 27 percent female partners.
“It’s not just the ‘right thing’ to have more women leaders in the workplace, it’s good business,” said Susan Taylor Martin, president of Thomson Reuters Legal. “A more diverse workforce is a more innovative, productive and creative workforce that drives bottom-line results, and attracts the best and brightest talent. The research has been clear and consistent about this again and again, and yet we still have a long way to go, including in the legal industry.”
As for FTSE 100 firms, it’s reported that there are only 22 female general counsels. And at the bar, around 50 percent of those called are women; however, they make up only 25 percent of the judiciary.
“That is simply a waste of good talent at a time when our industry is facing such fundamental change,” said Lucinda Case, managing director for Thomson Reuters UK & Ireland. “The more diversity of thought and approach we have, the more likely we are to weather this change.”
Steps in the right direction
When numbers speak for themselves, as they do here, there’s little dispute there’s an issue to correct. The question is, how?
Recently, the Financial Times reported that female partners at London law firms typically receive 24 percent less compensation than their male counterparts. In other fields, the difference between compensation for male and female partners is significantly less, around 10 percent or so. Just as it’s the job of those in the media to put issues like this under the microscope, it’s our job to pay attention when it does – and to react sufficiently and accordingly.
Some problems are too large to fight alone and have to be tackled together.
“This is not a conversation or a problem for women alone to address,” Case said.
For women to achieve parity in the legal field, they need the sustained support of male colleagues. That means respecting and elevating women’s input, giving women credit for their work and accomplishments and actively striving to correct the historical imbalance of women being underrepresented in law.
Initiatives like the Transforming Women’s Leadership in Law program aim to solidify efforts to elevate women in law and keep focus on the issue. “We are bringing together participants from across the legal services industry to uncover solutions that we hope will increase the representation of women at the more senior levels of our industry,” Case said at the program’s January 31 launch. “We are hoping that by providing a similar platform for debate on practical steps to increase the female pipeline, and including the buy and sell side, we can bring about change in this market.”
The Transforming Women’s Leadership in Law program has formed a UK Advisory Board with representatives from private practice, in-house and public sector and has already had several “lively” meetings on steps being taken to make the industry more diverse from work allocation methods to sponsorship programs.
“We know the will is there to drive change, and the commercial rationale well understood, but there is a real need for more actionable steps and interventions to be understood and more widely adopted,” Case said.