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‘Hundreds of thousands of pounds are earmarked’: Linklaters’ senior partner Robert Elliott talks new diversity targets

As Linklaters yesterday (9 June) became the second Magic Circle firm after Allen & Overy to put in place gender diversity targets, senior partner Robert Elliott explained to Legal Business why partners have voted to set a target of 30% of all partner promotions to be made up of women and how they plan to double their female management figure to that ratio by 2018.

Elliott, who has been a member of the women into boardrooms initiative The 30% Club for two years ‘in a personal capacity’, is the highest ranking lawyer at Linklaters with a hands-on role in helping the firm meet its new diversity targets. He will be flanked by London-based projects partner Fiona Hobbs and Spanish litigation partner Francisco Malaga.

The firm, at its annual partner conference in Barcelona in April, adopted gender-related targets for 30% female membership of the executive committee and international board by 2018, up from the 15% of women that currently make up the 26 board members at the firm. That figure was lower before the board promotions of litigation partner Christa Band and corporate partner Aedamar Comiskey in February this year, appointments that increased the number of women across the firm’s two boards from two to four.

But while Linklaters has shied away from the hard total female partner constituency targets set by other firms such as Magic Circle rival Allen & Overy, which last month introduced a 20% female partnership target by 2020, what measures will it put in place to ensure the diversity objectives in place are achieved?

Elliott says the first step has been to find out why women aren’t making partnership. ‘It has been difficult, given how for a number of years the number of women we’ve been bringing into the firm and training as lawyers has been approximately 50-50 for some time but the actual number coming through to partnership has been a lot lower than that. You’ve had this attrition and understanding the reasons for that attrition has been part of the challenge. It’s not as simple as saying women are leaving for family reasons. Is it about the work allocation? Is it about the way women are assessed? Is it about the way they self-assess? Is it the way they look at their prospects? Understanding those reasons has been part of our objective and I think we do understand those reasons better.’

Improved gender diversity is one of Linklaters’ global priorities and Elliott says ‘it will be a serious investment with hundreds of thousands of pounds earmarked’. The firm has launched a tailored training programme for those in leadership roles to ensure progression is based on merit and is rolling out the Linklaters’ Women’s Leadership Programme, in association with Cranfield School of Management, to target the strongest potential as early as possible. Training has to be applied for and the courses will run twice a year with around 30 spaces on each run.

Elliott explains: ‘When you talk about aspirational targeting, it’s different from quotas, nobody is in favour of quotas, but we believe the talent is available and it’s about ensuring it comes through. We’re talking about experience and talent and this is not something that is tokenistic, this is substantive.’

The gender initiative, rolled out globally this year, consists of a series of events, structured learning on topics such as unconscious bias and coaching sessions. Nine of the firm’s 21 partner promotions were women this year, with three of those coming from Asia, where competition partner Fay Zhou and banking partner Xiaohui Ji were promoted in Beijing along with banking partner Pornpan Chayasuntorn in Bangkok.

The training is available on a global scale, and Elliott says the initiative will be pushed with more vigour in some regions due to cultural and educational differences that has led to lower number of female partners. ‘Our highest proportion of women partners is in our Asia region, which is somewhere around 28% and our lowest is in continental Europe, where some of the jurisdictions are quite tough as there is more conservatism around this than in the UK or the US. In those jurisdictions you have to be more active in your sponsorship and targeting. The scheme cannot be the firm’s headquarters issuing dictates about such matters, it’s about winning hearts and minds.’