Last year was hugely significant for women lawyers as we became the majority of practising solicitors in England and Wales (50.2%). However, of the 30,000 partners in private practice only 28% are women. This is clearly an issue that must be tackled. I believe that my women in leadership programme has a significant contribution to make.
Women’s skills and abilities continue to be underused. Women aged 36-40 (and older) are leaving the profession, often at a point in their career when they have the expertise and experience to become partners in private practice. Firms are losing a significant part of their talent pool. This is a serious business issue.
We need a cultural shift to achieve real equality. Our research shows that work-life balance is a problem and that too many women still fear asking employers for flexible working arrangements because they believe this could be viewed as a lack of commitment. This puts women under pressure and many vote with their feet by leaving the sector, taking with them their knowledge, experience and expertise.
Interestingly, a significant proportion of women decide to work in-house (56% compared with 48% in private practice), where more employers appear to have recognised the benefit of agile working policies as a way of attracting and retaining the best employees. In-house solicitors account for 22% of the profession, which we predict will rise to 35% by 2020.
The situation is exacerbated by two other issues that are often identified as key causes of women leaving: difficulty balancing work and caring responsibilities; and barriers to returning to the legal profession after a career break.
The gender pay gap data reveal further challenges. While we welcome the introduction of new government requirements around gender pay gap reporting – which will bring greater transparency – we know that meaningful change will not happen without a significant cultural shift. This must be rooted in a shared understanding that gender equality and parity of treatment of women and men will be beneficial for everyone.
For example, evidence shows that companies with a good gender balance consistently outperform those that do not have equal representation, especially at the top. In addition, figures from the Women’s Business Council estimate that fairer treatment for women in the workplace could contribute an additional £150bn to GDP by 2030.
Some firms have started to adapt in response to this problem. Many recognise the merit of flexible working policies and using innovation to help drive equality. We are seeing a rise in the adoption of agile working, work allocation policies, and an outputs and outcomes-focused approach rather than the traditional billable hours model.
These can help to improve the working environment and career prospects for everyone, including women, working fathers and others with caring responsibilities. Equality is good for business and tackling these issues will positively affect society as a whole.
To contribute to this shift, the Law Society marked Equal Pay Day in the UK (10 November) by launching an online consultation to generate insights and collect experiences of gender issues, including the pay gap. This was supported by several stakeholders including the Law Society’s Women Lawyers Division, LexisNexis and the Women Lawyers’ Interest Group of the International Bar Association. I am confident the insights we gain will play a key part in accelerating the pace of change.
We have already had more than 5,000 responses but we need more women and men – particularly from other jurisdictions – to use this as an opportunity to make their voices heard and to help inform the changes we hope to implement. I would be grateful if you would complete this survey and share it broadly with all your networks. Here’s to strides towards equality for all in the legal profession – let us lead by example.
Christina Blacklaws is vice-president of the Law Society