Legal Business Blogs

Comment: Women in law – A belated bandwagon, but still welcome

Rarely, even in the conservative game of law, has so necessary a measure been so long avoided until the status quo became so laughably, farcically untenable. The move is for major law firms to start articulating public benchmarks for their proportion of female partners – corporate speak for the series of concrete targets announced this year to stem the huge outflow of talented women from the profession.

For years the profession had claimed that meritocracy and changing attitudes would feed through into higher than the circa-20% female partnerships currently at most firms; over the last five years it has become apparent how baseless that conventional wisdom was as gender diversity has barely budged. Indeed, there is some evidence that the two primary tools by which law firms increasingly manage their partnerships – lateral hiring and partner exits – are both favouring male lawyers over women and offsetting any number of women’s networks and mentoring schemes.

The truth is the ushering in of diversity targets has been resisted largely for ideological reasons around woolly notions of free markets. At the heart of this Anglo-Saxon world view was the corrosive concept of meritocracy, a noun that writes its own reviews; how could anyone be against meritocracy?! This would be fine as long as the stats and a dash of common sense in any way supported the notion that this meritocracy deserved its tag. In the case of women in law, as with ethnic and social minorities, the figures have for years made it starkly plain that there are substantial barriers blocking the elevation of many groups. Once you accept the existence of such barriers – be they forged of malice or more likely unconscious habit – it’s a natural step to consider more substantive measures to break them down.

These barriers are most striking in the case of female partners, not because law does worse than many other comparable fields, like banking, accounting or consultancy in getting women into senior roles – it doesn’t. It is that law wastes the huge proportion of talented young women who flock to the profession. Most cases of bias involve organisations replicating their existing labour force to the exclusion of talented new entrants whose faces don’t fit – with women in law, the profession has been unable even to reach an accommodation with half of its expensively recruited workforce. Cracking the gender point isn’t more important than other diversity issues – some other groups are even worse-served in law – but it is fundamental, because if law firms can’t get this right, what hope is there for other ‘non-traditional’ lawyers?

Debates about whether these are ‘quotas’ or aspirational targets are a distraction – obviously a firm would do better to organically strive through trial and error to hit an achievable goal – say, 30% female partnership by 2020 – rather than impose crude women-only partnership lists, but there is a reasonable balance to be struck that isn’t the status quo.

Still, while the rash of gender commitments this year is a laudable shift for the profession – it’s hardly an unalloyed triumph. Leadership on this point has come from outside private practice, largely from an evolving debate on female board composition and a more robust stance from an increasingly female-driven in-house profession. In this case the agile, progressive image the global legal profession likes to present has been found wanting.

See ‘The Target’ for an extended analysis of the state of gender diversity at top UK law firms