For some time, the profession has been doing a good job of enticing women in (although, as we all know, a lot of them end up packing their bags in their 30s when they find family life incompatible with their firm’s demands).For example, of all new admissions to the roll in 2009, including transfers from the bar or from overseas, 60% were women, while 62% of trainees who qualified this year were female.
As this filters through, women are edging towards comprising half of the profession (they currently stand at 45%). Indeed, whereas the practising profession as a whole has grown by 45% in the past ten years, the number of women holding practising certificates has shot up by 87%.
So far, so good.
Of course, as many women have entered the profession more recently than men – the average age of a female solicitor with a practising certificate is 38, compared to 44 for men – fewer of them can be expected to have made it to the top echelons of the profession.
But as this week’s story highlighted, even when women are judged against men of the same post-qualification experience, there is still a massive gulf between the two sexes when it comes to partnership prospects.
In the most popular 10-19 years’ PQE bracket, 75% of men are partners, compared to 47% of women. That’s a big gap.
Why is this?
Could it be something to do with the type of practice women are more likely to choose? It is true that while women form only 40% of solicitors in private practice, they make up 50% of those in the employed sector, such as local government and commerce and industry, possibly attracted by the more family-friendly working hours.
But the partnership figures I mentioned above (75% vs 47%) relate to private practice only and do not include solicitors in the employed sector.
Is it, then, that the areas of private practice where there have traditionally been a large number of women – family work, for example - do not offer as many partnership opportunities as, say, corporate work? That might be one explanation. But of course there are a heck of a lot of women out there working in corporate law.
The Law Society’s annual statistical report, which is the source of these figures, also revealed another worrying trend for women. Disparity between the two sexes exists not only at the top end of the profession, but also at entry level.
Male trainees are being offered starting salaries which are 8% more than those of their female counterparts. This is in part explained by the fact that men are more likely than women to be placed in the big City firms with 81 partners or more. While 40% of male trainees went to one of these firms, only 32% of women did.
The next bracket of firm, still pretty large with 26 partners of more, accounted for 61% of male placements, and 52% of female ones.
Women trainees, it seems, were much more likely to be placed in smaller firms, where they will begin their careers on a lower salary than many of the men they sat in class with on the training course. And so, it seems, the disparity will continue.
If all this is down to a genuine preference by women for smaller firms or lower-paid practice areas, then fair enough. But if there is something else at play – namely, discrimination, in a profession that ought to know better – then we need to get to the bottom of it. And fast.