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Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law Conference: ‘we can implement more change’

Thomson Reuters’ Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law (TWLL) programme held its inaugural UK conference in London on 1 May 2018. The aim – to bring together people from all segments of the legal industry to examine, discuss and debate the barriers that impede women as they progress in their legal careers.

Opening the conference, Lucinda Case, Managing Director of Thomson Reuters’ Legal UK & Ireland business, acknowledged that ‘there is a collective desire, and a sense of urgent need, for a more diverse and inclusive legal industry that increases its retention and promotion of women and other minorities.’ Further, Case noted that the statistics clearly show that progress in turning the dial on gender inequality is frustratingly – incredibly slow.

Case shared the vision of the TWLL programme is to cultivate and develop actionable steps which organisations can take to accelerate the progress towards equality in the legal profession – as well as empower and inspire more women to take on senior leadership roles.

The concept that diverse and inclusive teams are more creative and innovative, is not new. Different experiences, perspectives and approaches to solving complex problems produce better results. “And I suspect that most of you in the room know that it’s not just the right thing or about fairness to have more women leaders in the workplace,” said Case, “it’s good business.” According research done by McKinsey in 2017, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity in their executive teams were 21 percent more likely to experience better profitability.

The keynote of the conference was Kate Adie OBE, an award-winning journalist and author, who is well-known to many from her work as a BBC Chief News Correspondent. Adie was one of the first women correspondents to send dispatches from danger zones around the world. After beginning her speech by saying ‘100 years ago we [women] wouldn’t have been let out of the house’, and later drawing on her wealth of experience, Adie kept the room at rapt attention. As we approach the 100-year anniversary of the Sexual Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, Adie reminded delegates of the time when women were not permitted to participate in the legal profession. Despite the sombre tone of the past, Adie gave inspiring accounts of her rise to the top of her profession.

Throughout the sessions of the day, polls were taken to help provide views and perceptions from the delegates about the state of affairs in the legal profession. During the first session, ‘The portfolio career path: expectations and approaches for the next generation to senior leaders to consider for developing teams of the future’, delegates were asked:

‘How would you rank the following in order of priority for teams of the future?’

Respondents indicated:

  • 1st place – opportunities for career progression
  • 2nd place – work life balance and flexibility
  • 3rd place – reputation – work having a purpose
  • 4th place – feedback culture
  • 5th place – diversity front of mind
  • 6th place – global career

To further the discussion about building teams of the future, the session that followed focused on organisations and indeed what they need to do to attract and retain women to progress – a theme closely related to a recent survey conducted by the Law Society. The survey revealed a shift in perception of gender difficulties and challenges and the increased need to uncover and unpack unconscious bias. It is clearly not enough to increase diversity policies and opportunities for women to advance in the teams of today and in the future – it is also about levelling the playing field for male practitioners through paternity leave, and agile working. In every session the reoccurring theme of ‘now it’s time to work on changing the perception’ since the advancement of women isn’t just about changing policies for their benefit.

The next session carried the message through with, ‘Beyond the norm: what really makes a difference? Intervening to break behavioural patterns and adopt effective working practice’. Delegates were once again asked to cast their views:

‘What makes the most difference as a practical intervention to break behavioural patterns and adopt effective working practices?’

The results of the poll indicate the delegates prioritise the following:

  • Sponsorship 52 percent
  • Agile working 18 percent
  • Work allocation 14 percent
  • Reverse mentoring 14 percent
  • Parental leave 2 percent

Key takeaways from this session showed that sponsorship is perceived as the most important practical intervention to make a difference in breaking behaviour patterns and adopting effective working practices. An effective sponsor is basically career advocate. Someone who will help you achieve your goals, and use their resources and connections to help pave the way for your career advancement. It is suggested that a formal sponsorship programme, rather than informal, increases fairness and transparency.

The next highest ranking practical intervention to level the playing field is ‘agile working’. Though, it’s not all about technology. Indeed, technology allows for easy access to the organisation’s knowledge and documents – and it has enabled agile working among legal service providers, but there needs to be a clear steer from the top around diversity and inclusion which sets the tone and shows a real commitment. Some law firms have taken it as far as setting targets and timelines, aligned with any other business objectives that would already exist, but there is still sometimes resistance to set these. The key for any effort to lead to tangible results is transparency and honesty about what is going on.

In the afternoon, the breakout session ‘Making it happen: Bringing diversity, inclusion and intersectionality to the forefront of your business strategy’ sparked an interesting discussion and debate. There are a wide array of programmes and initiatives trialled by legal service providers, from making female role models at the Bar more visible in order to inspire the younger generation; to reconnecting programmes for returning mothers; and, setting 50/50 pipe-line targets for graduate recruitment. These initiatives are sometimes connected to performance metrics where there is a reward for meeting them. Collectively, these efforts should slowly transform the traditional culture of legal services from one that rewards ’presenteeism’ into one that rewards a diversity of thought and innovation.

With a cohort of outstanding speakers, and the lively discussion and debate that ensued, it no doubt lead the audience to a more inspired and motivated view of ‘we can implement more change’ in the legal profession – leading to visions for achieving 50/50 gender leadership in all professions as a reasonable goal, since globally it is comparable to the demographics of the world.

At the end of the conference, Case spoke to the incredibly positive responses attributed to the TWLL conference and programme received during the breaks. In addition to thanking the speakers and delegates for participating, Case expressed sincere gratitude for the dedication, support, and guidance of Advisory Board of the TWLL programme. And Case ended on the note of saying, ‘I want you to go away today feeling that any measures we take to level the playing field should be encourage and celebrated.’ Indeed, every effort – no matter how small – will help turn the dial just a little more towards a more balanced and equal future in the legal profession.

Watch the video highlights from the TWLL Conference. 

Successfully facing challenges in the legal profession—TWLL roundtable in Dubai Progress on gender equality remains ‘painfully slow’ for senior leadership in the legal profession Equality has the power to transform the business of law “Respect is not an indulgence”—inclusive and effective change leadership in legal teams Roundtable: Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law (London) Video highlights: Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law Conference 2019 A year in review—advancing equality in legal leadership through TWLL roundtable discussions Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law Conference 2019—’there is collective desire for a more diverse and inclusive legal industry’ Bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession—us too? Recent IBA Survey Data on Bullying and Sexual Harassment is Unsettling