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Top 10 firms lag behind mid-sized peers for gender balance

Smaller firms better able to retain and promote women lawyers to partnership

29 September 2016

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The UK’s largest law firms are still lagging behind their mid-tier rivals when it comes to achieving gender balance at partnership level, according to new research.

Data from executive search firm Edward Drummond shows women account for just 19 per cent of all partners at the UK’s Top 10 firms, compared with 24 per cent of partners at the rest of the UK Top 100.

The figures suggest mid-sized firms have been better able to retain and promote women who have or are planning to have children.

Edward Drummond explained that mid-tier firms – the sizes of which mean they can be more agile – are better positioned than their larger counterparts to quickly roll out flexible working programmes and the technology needed to support them.

By comparison, larger firms often require policies to go through complex multi-channel management systems, across multiple jurisdictions, meaning it can take considerably longer to implement similar schemes at bigger firms.

Monica Doherty, senior executive at the search firm, said: ‘This is one of those areas where the small size of a firm can actually play to its advantage. Less complex HR and IT systems mean mid-tier firms can more quickly respond to staff needs – like tailoring the working week around the childcare requirements of a new member of staff.

‘While men are playing an increasing role in childcare, unfortunately, women are in many cases still expected to shoulder responsibility in this area. This can be tricky when juggling home life with a demanding career – unless an employer is able to be flexible.’

Doherty added that larger firms are less able to compete with the speed at which their smaller rivals are able to innovate – mainly for cost and logistical reasons. ‘The sheer size of the very largest firms means that it will take longer to bring in new policies that may help to retain female talent at top firms,’ she added.

Top 10 firms also face the additional challenge of balancing employee initiatives, such as flexible working schemes, with meeting client demands. With a larger proportion of their work consisting of corporate finance deals, mergers and acquisitions and IPO activity, larger firms are expected to ensure their lawyers are available 24/7.

The legal sector as a whole lags just behind the FTSE 100, where women currently make up 26 per cent of board members.

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