City firms are hiring women in record numbers – and then losing them. Eduardo Reyes looks at detailed research into the reasons.

Half or more of trainees and newly qualified solicitors in City and commercial law firms are women. But in general, this is not feeding through to a better balance at partnership level. Cohort after cohort of highly skilled women lawyers reach senior associate grade and seem to hit – depending on your preferred image – a glass ceiling or a cattle grid. Careers stall and some leave the law altogether. According to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, a quarter of partners in large UK firms are women. But in practice areas like corporate finance and litigation, the proportion is significantly lower.

This has left the leadership of law firms, like Dr Seuss’s Grinch, puzzling till their puzzlers are sore. There should be close interest, then, in research on the attitudes, aspirations and experiences of lawyers from this demographic – a joint project undertaken by Women In Law London (WILL) and academics from King’s College London. Some 327 of WILL’s 2,000 members – average age 33 – answered detailed questions designed to measure their experiences, and ascertain both their priorities and perceived obstacles to progress.

Making a choice?

Equality is, of course, the right and ‘fair’ thing to support. But there is also a straight business reason for taking equality seriously – firms invest significant resources in identifying and attracting skilled lawyers, a proportion of whom they expect to have a future role in owning and leading the firm. A high attrition rate hits the bottom line; retaining loyal lawyers makes economic sense.

An oft-repeated view is that attrition is inevitable because women are ‘simply making a choice’. That argument brings to mind writer Susan Faludi’s words: ‘Feminism’s agenda is basic: it asks that women not be forced to “choose” between public justice and private happiness.’

Is the failure to appreciate the implications of Faludi’s view exactly what is stopping a more equal outcome for the legal sector? Or are law’s women simply making a choice?

Hogan Lovells chair Nicholas Cheffings, a member of WILL’s advisory board, says not. He begins by citing another research project which covered professional ‘millennials’, conducted by PwC. The results, Cheffings says, shows that ‘opting out is more of a myth than a reality’. He adds: ‘Being “opted out” is much more real, and the challenge for many firms is not to ignore the importance of career development for those women who take periods of maternity leave and then return just as ambitious for personal growth as they were before starting a family.’

In the PwC study, only 4% of millennial women cited starting a family as their reason for leaving. Asked a hypothetical question about what reason they might have to leave in the future, 19% gave this reason but it ranked sixth in importance. Supporting such conclusions, the WILL survey showed career satisfaction among women solicitors to be moderately high, as was ‘organisational commitment’.

Law firm leaders will find pause for thought in other statistics, where their efforts in this area are judged more harshly. Organisational commitment to diversity ‘was not particularly high’. Just under 28% said there were no women partners in their department/practice area. Some 9% definitely wanted to leave the legal profession and, in a challenge to law firms, just over half saw their careers ‘possibly’ continuing in-house.

Family first?

The relationship between career progression on the one hand and family or caring responsibilities on the other is not straightforward. Raising the issue of ‘family life’ currently brings one to the notion of ‘choice’.

Asked questions about the prospect of achieving both ‘personal and professional success’, WILL’s members gave responses that were below the midpoint. ‘This suggests,’ the report notes, ‘that these women do not perceive it easily possible to succeed in both their career and other important aspects of their lives (such as having a family or looking after dependant relatives) without some kind of sacrifice in the legal profession.’

Sascha Grimm, WILL co-founder and an associate at Cooley, says: ‘One of the major issues facing women in law is the perception of the difficulty in having a family and “making it to the top” versus the reality.’ Balancing home and professional life, Grimm notes, can be ‘incredibly tough for both genders’. But, she observes: ‘There seems to be a sense of inevitability within the management of law firms – and, to a large extent, [among] female associates themselves – that it is not possible to make partner and have a family life. This seems to be felt far more in respect of women than men. As a result, firms assume this will be the case and often speak to their female associates, from the early part of their careers, with this assumption in mind… thus it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.’

The combination of perception and assumption matters here, says Suzanne Szczetnikowicz, chair and co-founder at WILL and a senior associate at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, because, ‘women are taking decisions about their future career paths early on in their profession, looking to those who have trodden the path before them’.

What, then, would alter the enduring perception that the personal and professional realms are mutually exclusive choices for this demographic? Those interviewed by the Gazette cite key areas for action.


Simply saying this does not need to be a ‘choice’ has some affirming value. But for anyone stretched by the competing demands of personal and professional life, there are significant logistics to manage. Here WILL advisory board member Funke Abimbola, general counsel and head of financial compliance at Roche UK, points out: ‘The current business model is not very flexible and does not in the main… utilise modern technology to the extent possible to support agile working. Presenteeism is still rife and, indeed, rewarded, in too many law firms.’

In this regard, Cheffings adds: ‘The profession has to make itself fit for purpose. Agile working is very much part of that but takeup needs to be gender-neutral in order to avoid it being perceived as only for those not serious about their careers. It is often precisely the opposite.’

What should not be underestimated, WILL’s committee members and the report’s authors stress, is the importance of career support in addition to changes to the structure of legal work. It is important to have the right policies in place, and to make clear that a firm or department is open to flexible working. But professionals still need support to negotiate those structures – after all, law is a ‘people’ business.

Abimbola explains: ‘The fact [is] that not enough firms actively support women, or indeed those lawyers who might have personal carer commitments outside their day jobs. More firms need to be involved in mentoring, sponsorship and offer coaching to their talented lawyers.’

She adds: ‘There are still limited opportunities for promotion to partnership or equivalent senior roles in-house and women tend to be disproportionately affected by not being supported into those senior roles.’

Acting on Abimbola’s advice is also, Cheffings notes, an important way to counter a bias that is currently built in. ‘One of the challenges for the profession, which some are attempting to address, is that traditionally men tend to be “self-promoters” and so they are more likely to be viewed as “impressive” or “ambitious” or “high-flyers”,’ he points out. ‘Women can be all of those things but they can be less willing to shout about it and so, in order to be seen as such, they often need to be actively supported by a sponsor, who helps to promote them as potential candidates for both quality work and partnership and generally to make them more “front of mind” to others.’


Law firm partners and senior in-house lawyers can accept that greater equality at all levels of the legal profession would benefit their organisations. But day to day, equality must compete with other pressures.

The WILL report looks at this. Accepting that other performance measures – making billable hours targets for example – have hard-edged incentives attached, is there any link between diversity performance and reward in these organisations? Some 12.5% reported a link. This is well below other practices in the same question set – 72% of organisations had work-life balance initiatives, for example.

Are performance rewards important here? Szczetnikowicz concludes that they are. ‘Linking diversity to performance and reward is crucial to engendering real change within organisations,’ she says. ‘Not everyone within a law firm is focused on [diversity and inclusion] and that may not be because they are actively opposed to it, rather it might be that they have other priorities, or they don’t always see how it is applicable to them.’

For example, linking remuneration or performance grading to contributions made in the last review period to diversity within an organisation, Szczetnikowicz says, ‘is a very easy tool to encourage those who may not otherwise have given real consideration and time to this core value to do so. As soon as management and those responsible for leading teams are required to provide that commitment, diversity becomes an entrenched part of the culture’.

Cheffings’ own firm now has a commitment to that approach, he relates: ‘We ask every one of our partners to tell us exactly what they have done to develop and maintain our talent and the diversity of that talent, including recruiting, mentoring, training, sponsoring and supporting junior colleagues.’ With the Hogan Lovells approach, heads of practice groups are ‘accountable for ensuring that their teams are diverse in every respect’. He adds: ‘Our compensation system for partners takes account of these issues and is not simply confined to financial metrics.’

It is an approach that Abimbola has seen work: ‘We saw a dramatic change in culture within Roche when we rewarded colleagues not only for what they had delivered but also how they had delivered.’ Behaviours are as important now as the actual delivery of objectives, she explains: ‘All leaders are benchmarked across seven leadership commitments which all go towards embracing a diverse and inclusive workplace. Pay rises, bonuses and other forms of reward are directly linked to this. By measuring in this way, we have driven significant cultural change within the organisation.’

Opting in

Some of the legal profession’s top brass may be asking, with increasing urgency: why so many women are choosing to quit? But the WILL research – by focusing on exactly the demographic whose commitment apparently eludes them – points to this being the wrong question.

The group surveyed finds the law to be a fulfilling career to which they feel committed. And, as the PwC research shows, choices such as having children (or other caring responsibilities, which tend to involve less choice) are a complex part of the picture.

It is not as stark as opting for the NCT over IPOs – instead, there is an interplay between the structure of work, perceptions regarding prospects, the culture of career support, and finding a way to reward those who contribute to more equal outcomes. To deny that this interplay exists for this demographic is, as Cheffings notes, to ‘opt out’ people you in theory want to retain and promote.

‘Attitudes,’ the report’s author, KCL’s Dr Alexandra Budjanovcanin, notes, ‘are linked to factors within the control of organistions, such as promotion opportunities… culture and the visibility of successful female role models.’

Getting this right has wider benefits, Cheffings adds. Referencing the PwC research, he notes that millennial men gave answers that should give the legal profession pause for thought. ‘For… 41% of males, work and personal life being out of balance was much more likely to be a reason to change roles,’ than a simple decision to ‘start a family’.

‘Accommodating talent,’ Grimm adds, ‘should be seen as a commercial necessity that needs to be built into the working model, in the same way as any challenges facing a business are.’

In closing, Szczetnikowicz stresses that solutions to the professional attrition explored in the WILL research – and countless other studies – are all about promoting excellence in the law. ‘The point,’ she says, ‘is not to ensure that all women make it to the top, come what may. Rather, it is to ensure that the brightest and the best are identified and given the real opportunity to progress. When over half of those going into the solicitor profession since the 1990s have been women, it really is hard to see why there should remain so few at the top of the profession.’