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Gender Equality in the Legal Profession

Gender Equality in the Legal Profession

Gender balance has always remained a challenging issue in business, and the legal profession is no different. Women are more than sufficiently represented at the entry level, accounting for over 60% of applications between July 2012 and July 2013, however this does not translate into partner promotions, since women continue to be chronically undervalued at the upper part of the legal sphere.


Firms ascribe this to a variety of issues ranging from difficult work-life stability and work conditions, to the appeal of in-house, to women seeming to be less likely than men to vigorously seek partnership and an absence of female figures to motivate and coach them.


In the leading twenty UK-headquartered corporations from 2008 to 2014, women accounted for just 28.6% over all UK partnership promotions. This is an increase from 22% during the financial meltdown, but growth has weakened in the past year, with women partnership promotions dropping by 5% (33% to 28.5%). Female advancements in companies such as Ashurst, Clifford Chance, and Freshfields average approximately 20%, with Taylor Wessing ranking worst at 12%. Predictably, there were years when no ladies have made it on top at all at several of these businesses.


There are also some rays of hope: Clyde & Co, Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP), Bird & Bird, and Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) have all reached a 30% female partner promotion rate since 2008, while Irwin Mitchell has had over 50% female partner promotions since 2008. Norton Rose Fulbright, which had only promoted one female partner between 2008 and 2010, has significantly improved their numbers since then, with women representing 37.5% of advancements since 2008.


Despite the fact that total statistics leave much to be desired, fresh efforts are being developed in an effort to conquer this specific barrier. Several legal firms have established gender diversity objectives: Linklaters has set a target of 30% female participation on its executive committee and worldwide panel; Pinsent Masons as well as Ashurst have jumped on board, aiming for at least 25% female partnership and management posts by 2018. In spite of their recent gender-free promotional round, BLP are striving for 30 percent of overall female collaboration by 2018 and, as noted in The Lawyer, are even purportedly telling recruiters to target female candidates in fields where they have headcount.


Firms have initiated diversity programs to attract women to enter the partnership route and to guarantee they are on an equal footing with their male colleagues. In October of this year, HSF launched a program to provide career counselling to bright junior women associates, as well as mentoring female salaried partners aspiring to equity, and Olswang has urged their associates to undergo training courses on unconscious gender prejudice.


The administration is also doing its own to address the age-old issue of childcare: in April 2015, UK legislation will be adopted to encourage couples to share 1 year of parental leave following the birth of their child. Despite the government's prediction that just 2% to 8% of dads will participate in this plan, many in the legal field have welcomed it., with 40 percent of the total of partners feeling it will aid in the retention of critical female talent. These measures, combined with support systems such as PRIME, that focuses on diversity in general, and the advent of the female group Women In Law London (WILL), indicate that awareness of these challenges and the resolve to address them is growing.


While there is no question that this action is well-intentioned, law firms must make sure that the message continually presented is one of inclusion and a real desire for prosperity via diversity, rather than one of cynical quota fulfilment to please customers and the wider market. Law companies must promote and enable women to apply for partnership through professional assistance and coaching, and to recognize that conventional barriers such as parenting and historically (and, in many firms, contemporary) male dominance no longer need to stand in their way of reaching their partnership objective. This, however, must be matched with a strong meritocracy culture to guarantee that only the greatest talent, whether male and female, is recognized and rewarded.