Legal Business Blogs

Women in law – rising up the agenda but female lawyer numbers continue to slide at elite UK law firms

Even for the most jaded denizen of the City legal community it’s been hard to avoid noticing the greater emphasis that law firms have put on diversity in recent years. While social mobility was in the spotlight several years ago with the cross-industry launch of PRIME, 2014 has seen a rash of law firms announce concrete targets to improve female representation in their partnerships.

Laudable as such initiatives are, Legal Business research to be published later this week illustrates how necessary tougher measures are because the latest figures on female retention demonstrate a near total lack of progress over the last four years, with many firms seeing the position deteriorate.

Against comparable statistics produced in early 2010 for the UK’s largest law firms, the Magic Circle as a group saw no progress in increasing the proportion of female partners in their ranks. The female partnership rates for the five firms stand currently at: Clifford Chance 16%; Linklaters 15%; Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer 12%; Allen & Overy 16%; and Slaughter and May 18%. Those figures are unchanged from 2010, apart from a 1% increase at CC and a 1% fall at Freshfields. Interestingly, the Magic Circle as a whole also saw minor falls in the overall proportion of female lawyers among their fee earners.

This pattern is repeated across top-25 UK law firms, with only three firms in the group managing to get 25% or more of their partnerships composed of women, while the majority of firms also saw falling proportions of female associates.

The numbers suggest two possible causes: firstly, that the wave of restructurings and tougher performance management seen in the City since 2008 has hit women harder than men and, secondly, that female lawyers are themselves increasingly opting out of partner-track private practice to work flexibly, move in-house or quit law altogether.

These trends are particularly interesting as it points to the huge, and apparently accelerating, stream of women lawyers out of private practice at a time when over half of the junior intake at many law firms is female.

Such figures also put into context familiar complaints about ‘quotas’ when law firms start to talk about more aggressive measures to tackle diversity. Certainly, there is no evidence to support the claim that there will be an evolutionary feed-through where more diverse junior ranks ultimately create more cosmopolitan partnerships and avoid compromising the meritocracy law firms shakily claim to cherish.

One reason that a more pro-active stance on boosting female retention is finally taking hold appears to be enlightened self-interest: by consensus an increasingly female-orientated in-house community has over the last five years grown more willing to penalise male-dominated law firms come review time.

But whether the current rash of targets will solve the problem is debatable. Crunching the current numbers on top law firms indicates that many will find it very challenging even to hit a 25% target within a five-to-seven year timeframe given the over-whelming male dominance of their partnerships. At this point, we will see how far female retention really has moved up the agenda.

For more analysis and commentary on law firms’ attempt to improve gender diversity see Legal Business’s September edition out later this week in print, online and iPad.