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Progress on gender equality remains ‘painfully slow’ for senior leadership in the legal profession

Despite women now making up the majority of the workforce, men still dominate senior roles. It was not until the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 that women in England and Wales were able to become lawyers. The Solicitors Act 1843 did not consider women ‘persons’ and barred them from the profession.

Almost 100 years on, women are making history in the legal profession. For the first time, women make up the majority of practising solicitors. The latest annual statistical report from the Law Society showed there were 69,995 women solicitors, 366 more than the number of men. If current rates of growth continue, the Law Society estimates that by 2022 there will be approximately 10,000 more female practising solicitors than men.

“We have come from zero to the majority—that is massive”, says Dana Denis-Smith, Chief Executive of Obelisk Support and founder of the First 100 Years project, which charts and celebrates the history of women in the profession.

Women have made a huge impact on the sector. Last year, Lady Hale became the first female president of the supreme court, says Denis-Smith. Also, on the bench of the UK’s highest court are Lady Justice Black and Lady Justice Arden—taking the number of women among the 12 justices to three. Following a flurry of appointments this year, more than a quarter of the court of appeal’s 38 judges are female and 22 of the 95 high court judges are women.

While recruiting women into the profession is not a problem—more women than men are starting law degrees and a record 64 percent of new trainees in last year’s intake were woman—retention and promotion are still of issue. Men are twice as likely to be partners and hold the majority of senior management posts. As for barristers, women account for 37 percent of the practising bar, but fewer than 14 percent are Queen’s counsel are women.

Remuneration is another issue. Nearly 50 years since the Equal Pay Act 1970, women solicitors still face a 27 percent gender pay gap—higher than the national average of 19 percent.

A report from MPs on the business, energy and industrial strategy committee recently criticised the “painfully slow” progress law firms have made on gender diversity. Stating that it will take “many years” for firms to “look anything like gender-balanced at the more senior levels”, MPs urged them to “redouble efforts to speed things up”.

The main barrier, says Funke Abimbola, General Counsel at Cycle Pharmaceuticals, is the “structure of the profession and its inherently misogynistic culture” that values long hours, presenteeism, sky-high hourly billing targets and networking.

Lucinda Case, Managing Director of Thomson Reuters’ Europe says that, “part of the problem comes from being in the professional services industry”, where “availability is the crux”, as well as ever more demanding buyers of legal services. “The pressure on firms to deliver, cuts out women and men who want a decent work-life balance,” says Case.

Case is sponsor and on the advisory board for the Thomson Reuters Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law programme, which seeks to help firms accelerate progress and encourage more women into leadership roles.

According to research conducted by Thomson Reuters and Acritas, ‘Current approaches to improving gender diversity at senior levels in law firms and correlated success’, firms are addressing the gender imbalance with a number of solutions. Some are permitting part-time working and using technology to enable agile, flexible and remote working. Others are promoting return-to-work initiatives, allowing extended parental leave and facilitating coaching and mentoring, including reverse mentoring—where senior people are paired with more junior lawyers. Other firms are also tackling unconscious bias, by making the allocation of work fairer and more transparent and ensuring gender balance in partner progression programmes.

Lisa Hart Shepherd, Acritas’ CEO, added, “the research has delivered some surprising insights that are consistent with broader diversity research which suggests some diversity programs have a negative effect. It is important for firms to take a step back and review their portfolio of initiatives and check that they are working holistically to positive effect in their current form”.

Halebury, a provider of in-house legal services, set up in 2007 by Janvi Patel and Denise Nurse, shows the impact that changing operational structures and ditching the reliance on the hourly rate can have. More than 95 percent of its work is billed using fixed fees or day rates, says Patel, and it has a 50:50 gender split among its staff.

Susan Bright, UK and Africa Managing Partner of Hogan Lovells, suggests that male and female lawyers generally get equal pay for equal work. But the gender pay gap reporting has shone a light on the scarcity of women in the top jobs. It has also forced firms to examine the effectiveness of their efforts to redress gender imbalance, says Laura King, Partner and Global Head of People and Talent at Clifford Chance.

Despite the collective desire for change, most agree the pace has been slow. But some resist the idea of mandatory quotas, preferring aspirational targets. Quotas, says Bright, are “deeply unhelpful”, can foster resentment and “make it easy for people to say a woman only got the job because she is a woman”.

Patel, however, is a convert and regards quotas as the only way to drive real progress. “We are not starting from an even base, but decades of history and entrenched structures that have favoured men. We have to shock the system into change,” Patel states.

The demands of corporate clients are making a difference, says Bright. “Gone are the days when you could turn up to a pitch with 10 middle-aged white men.” Case suggests these changes in attitudes and values will drive progress. “But real change requires sponsorship and buy-in from the leadership of law firms and a willingness to invest time addressing pipeline issues and ways to retain good people—both female and male, according to Case.

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