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Law firms failing to meet client demands for gender-diverse teams

Men's club mentality keeping women out of partnerships, Managing Partner roundtable finds

13 January 2015

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Large law firms need to radically change their cultures and working practices if they are to succeed in creating gender-diverse partnerships.

That's the view that emerged at a Managing Partner roundtable, which considered why many firms are still failing to develop gender-balanced partnerships and senior management teams.

"I don't know that we'll ever be able to get to 50 per cent diversity until the business of law as practiced by large law firms today changes," said Gina N Shishima, US head of IP transactions and patent prosecutions, and US chief diversity officer at Norton Rose Fulbright.

Women typically constitute more than half of the trainees and associates, but make up less than 20 per cent of the partners at international firms and about a quarter of the partners at London, regional and national firms, on average.

At equity partner level, female representation is even lower, ranging from 15 to 17 per cent among the UK's top 25 firms, fractionally up from the 14 to 15 per cent recorded in 2008, according to PwC data.

"Based on data alone, women should have achieved nearly 50 per cent parity as partners at the turn of the century," commented Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership and executive-in-residence at the Boston College Center for Work & Family.

Law firm culture and unconscious bias play an important part keeping women out of partnerships and senior management teams, according to panelists.

"A significant reason for the plateau in the number of women partners is the culture issue and the fact that discussions about law firm strategy and growth have not coalesced with those about diversity and inclusion," commented Shishima.

"We have to look at law firm culture," agreed Stiller Rikleen. "I think a huge part of the problem is that law firms separate their strategic initiatives from their diversity and inclusion efforts. As long as these two stay separate, I think that we will continue along the same path.

"Diversity and inclusion are not recognised as factors affecting the firm's bottom line."

Gender equality a business issue, not an HR issue

For Kate Wolstenholme, partner and UK business services sector leader at PwC, the key to resolving the gender imbalance is to frame it as a business issue, rather than as an HR issue.

"I think once you can link diversity to a real business imperative and a commercial win, it's much easier to get traction within the partnership."

She noted that corporate clients are increasingly demanding gender-diverse teams from their service providers. This is in part driven by the fact that many buyers of legal work are women who were once pushed out of law firms.

"Certainly what we see, and what we get direct feedback on when we're pitching for work, is that there is a real business imperative now to field a diverse team when you're pitching for work.

"All-male teams aren't well received by clients, who are often much more diverse on their side than we are on ours."

Panelists agreed that unconscious bias can be an important factor in keeping women out of partnerships, along with a lack of female role models.

"Inevitably, if you've got a partnership of males, where they tend to see the potential is more likely to be in people they have an affinity with," said Wolstenholme.

Training is therefore vital in counteracting deeply-ingrained biases and assumptions about women in senior positions.

Business generation approaches also need to change to ensure male partners keep their female colleagues top-of-mind when passing on work internally, said Shishima.

Agreed Stiller Rikleen: "Men inherit substantially more origination points for client matters than women, and that impacts the numbers significantly.

"If women are not included in that informal process of inheriting work and origination credit, then the playing field is not level for them in that very important metric when it comes to being considered for partnership, as well as when it comes to their compensation."

Law firms need to be more results driven and client centric

Panelists noted that, in future, a focus more on outputs than on time spent in the office will be key to law firms retaining talented women, millennials and corporate clients.

Greater adoption of flexible working technology and continued client pressure for fixed-price legal services may also, in time, result in changes to staffing models.

"Firms may have a much more mobile workforce and a much more contingent workforce that can be flexed up and down to meet key demands," commented Wolstenholme.

"That may be driven by recognition that it's more acceptable for people to work remotely and not have that constant culture of presenteeism and long hours that I think is fairly ingrained at the moment.

"All of that may make it a little easier to manage some of the work or parenting issues I think some people face, particularly working mothers."

The key findings of Managing Partner's roundtable on gender equality will be published in its February 2015 issue and online. The areas covered include the impact of firm culture and working practices on talent retention, the effectiveness of quotas and targets, and the approaches which are most effective in developing and retaining female lawyers.

Manju Manglani is editor of Managing Partner