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Gender quotas for partnership not the way forward, say lawyers

Women lawyers to wait six decades for equal representation at partner level

13 June 2016

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A majority of legal professionals do not think quotas, whether enforced or voluntary, are the way to ensure gender equality at the highest levels in UK law firms.

Some 47 per cent of respondents to a survey conducted by legal recruiter Laurence Simons believe quotas are ineffective. Instead, the implementation of flexible working arrangements, retention of top female talent, and leadership development programmes tailored to women should be a must for firms.

A further 19 per cent of respondents thought quotas would be effective at increasing gender equality but, nevertheless, should not be used. Reasons given included the view that quotas are patronising, anti-meritocratic, and discriminatory.

The findings back up the opinion of Supreme Court justice Lord Hodge, who, speaking at the First 100 Years project's Spark 21 conference last November, said: 'Women want true equality, not positive discrimination'.

While just one in four lawyers advocated the enforcement of quotas, 42 per cent of women would only want to see quotas used for ensuring a level of female partnership in firms. Just 16 per cent of men agreed.

However, almost two-thirds (62 per cent) of women lawyers say that their gender has hampered their career progress. By contrast, only 16 per cent of men felt their gender had been a barrier to career advancement.

An analysis of partner profiles at leading UK firms by Laurence Simons revealed that just 21 per cent of Magic Circle partners and 19 per cent of Silver Circle partners are female.

Overall, of the 1,000 plus partner profiles reviewed by the recruiter on LinkedIn in May 2016, just 20 per cent were found to be women.

This is despite recent research from the Law Society that showed women make up 49 per cent of the solicitor profession and two-thirds of practising solicitors under the age of 35.

Clare Butler, global managing director at Laurence Simons, said that to truly solve the issue of gender equality, the legal industry needed to tackle the root causes of the problem and not just 'tinker with the results of a dysfunctional system'.

'Key to overcoming the gender equality problem is setting up a forum in law firms, and amongst legal teams, where women feel comfortable discussing the attitudes and practices that might be holding them back,' she added.

'The women working in the UK profession are bright enough to be part of one of the best legal industries in the world, so let's learn from their experiences and apply these to future generations and create environments women want to be a part of and excel in.'

Gender equality remains a hot-button topic across business sectors. Last year's report from Lord Davies on gender equality recommended that one-third of board members at FTSE 350 companies should be female by 2020.

With just 21 per cent of senior management roles held by women in 2016, a recent report from Grant Thornton showed the UK is below the global average when it comes to promoting women to senior jobs, coming below Russia, China, and Italy.

The figures mean the UK legal profession is marginally worse at promoting women to leadership roles than the UK average.

Given that it takes three years to boost the proportion of women partners by 1.4 percentage points, at the current rate it will take 64 years for equal representation at the senior level in UK law firms.

Lord Sumption courted controversy in 2015 after suggesting a rush to gender equality at the top of the profession would lead to 'appalling consequences' for the quality of British justice and that equal representation in the judiciary was half a century away.

Last week, Herbert Smith Freehills announced plans to work with US organisation OnRamp to offer one-year fellowship placements in its UK and Australian offices for women lawyers returning to the workforce after extended career breaks - one of the reasons often given for a lack of career progression by female practitioners.

'It is vitally important that we continue to find ways to access the untapped pool of female talent for roles within the firm, which complement our existing strategies to promote diversity and inclusion across the firm,' said Sue Gilchrist, Herbert Smith Freehills' Asia and Australia regional managing partner.

Hogan Lovells, Sidley Austin, Cooley, and Baker Botts kicked-off the initiative in 2014, which has since grown to include 28 firms and a number of large in-house legal departments, such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Barclays' Compliance Group.

'Many of the top law firms are implementing initiatives and these now need to go beyond attracting, nurturing and retaining diverse talent. It's also about attitudes through the educational process,' said Butler.

'For example, Linklaters' London office works with local girls' schools to encourage working aspirations. Targeting a later point in women's careers, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer has a mentoring scheme for women in the business which focuses on overcoming challenges as well as the soft skills needed for leadership.

'By targeting all these touch points with women and girls we can start to make a difference and hopefully bring forward the date at which we can claim true equality in our UK legal profession.'

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