What is it about the legal profession that treats women so badly? 

She was at risk of being torn limb from limb. The best way for a woman lawyer to rise to the top, she said, is ‘to choose your husband wisely’. The Gazette reporter’s hand tightened on his pen, the knuckles showing white. Breath bated, he awaited the howls of feminist outrage.

But none came. Instead, the comment from Norwegian bar association president Berit Reiss-Andersen was met with good-natured laughter, although perhaps there was also a hint of knowing resignation. After all, who better to help you weather a childcare crisis than an ever-reliable him-indoors?

Reiss-Andersen’s quip came towards the end of a conference on gender inequality in the European legal profession. It was the curtain-raiser for the plenary meeting of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe in Brussels on 29 November.

Moderating the debate, Birgit Spiesshofer, who is of counsel in the Berlin offices of City firm Dentons, said that some progress towards equality had been achieved. ‘Until 1953, women in Germany could not open a bank account and it was not until 1977 that they could get a job without first getting their husband’s permission.’ She posed two questions to open the discussion: ‘Is there a silver bullet to effect change and will law firms change when government attitudes change?’

Dutch MEP Kartika Tamara Liotard agreed that some progress had been made towards equality. ‘Thirty-four percent of Supreme Court judges around Europe are now women,’ she said. (This contrasts uncomfortably with the UK Supreme Court where just one – or around 8% – of the 12 judges is a woman.) However, Liotard added that there are no women at all on the board of the European Central Bank, and in large corporations men on boards outnumber women by 81% to 19%.

Liotard said: ‘Gender stereotyping is all around and it is scary that we don’t recognise it.’ The European parliament has now proposed a ‘milestone’ directive to set a quota of 40% of women board members, she said: ‘Even the right wing voted in favour.’ The proposal has now gone to the Council of Ministers for approval.

Reiss-Andersen said that Norway was the first European country to introduce board quotas, which reinforced the ‘popular belief that we have gender sorted’. A glance at the employment figures tells a different story, she added. ‘The board quotas only apply to publicly quoted companies, not smaller companies. Also, some 42.2% of Norwegian women work part-time compared with 32% in the EU at large. This means that almost half of Norway’s working women lack career development opportunities and full pension rights. They are absolutely dependent on their husbands.’

More than half the trainees in law firms are women, Reiss-Andersen said, but the proportion reverses rapidly when lawyers reach the age that they can reasonably aspire to associate and partner levels. ‘The problem, of course, is childbirth,’ she said. ‘Maternity leave means a long absence from work, which leads to women developing insecurities and the awareness that they have missed out on professional development.

‘After a second child, women become an endangered species. Even if they don’t leave the firm, they are unlikely to apply for partnership – the long hours are incompatible with having small children.

‘The woman lawyer changes from a highly qualified professional to someone with low self-esteem. What is it about the legal profession that treats women this way?’

She added that the profession needs diversity to ensure it attracts and retains the best talent. ‘There is no rule that says the best lawyers are men aged 50 and over.’

Magic circle firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer global CSR partner Simon Hall brought a UK perspective to the debate. He outlined an impressive range of equality initiatives, including the Law Society’s inclusion and diversity charter, diversity access scheme and dedicated women lawyers’ group.

The Law Society hosted an international women in law summit in March 2012, he said, ‘which voted in favour of targets, not quotas, and which criticised the way firms’ equality policies are not mirrored by their cultures’.

Hall praised the Bar Council and Bar Standards Board’s equality and diversity (E&D) committee, retention group, and E&D rules in its code of conduct. The Solicitors Regulation Authority also addresses diversity in its code of conduct, while the Legal Services Board has introduced a duty on firms to collect and publish diversity data, added Hall.

‘Gender discrimination claims cost firms several million pounds a year,’ he said, ‘so there is a sound business case to embed E&D in a firm’s culture.’

Jean-Louis Joris, senior counsel at the Brussels office of US firm Cleary Gottlieb, said that Belgium was typical of many countries in that it paid ‘lip service’ to E&D, but did not do much else.

He also pointed to the ‘age pyramid’, where the higher the rank within the firm, the fewer women are represented. He proved his point by showing delegates the make-up of a typical US top-200 law firm. It would typically have 151 equity partners, of whom 15% were women; 91 non-equity partners, of whom 26% were women; 54 counsel, of whom 46% were women; 188 associates, of whom 46% were women; and 11 staff attorneys (a rank of lawyer that is less qualified than the others in the firm and is unlikely to progress higher up the ladder) – of whom 70% were women.

Joris asked: ‘What relevance has this to Europe? You can learn from the US experience and what US firms are doing to improve matters, such as mentoring, flexible working and seminars delivered by external experts.’

He said: ‘This dismal situation will only change when more women are our clients and make the not unreasonable demand for a more diverse workforce in the law firm that advises them. It will also happen when male associates start having changed lifestyle requirements and have to accept lower pay – as women have for years when they have babies.’

Before opening the debate to the floor, moderator Spiesshofer said: ‘Attitudes differ between east and west Europe, not least because Russia never asked women whether they wanted to work – they had to.

‘It is not a female problem, it is a structural problem. We need to break down cultural barriers.’

A delegate from the Thessaloniki Bar Association said that Greece also suffered from the ‘age pyramid’, with the proportion of women practising falling steadily after five years post-qualification experience.

Law Society of Scotland international relations officer Katy Hay said: ‘The world has changed and so have men, as a higher percentage of them opt to work flexibly.’

Her organisation has produced a practical guide to diversity, she said, and is encouraging firms to carry out pay audits to reveal any inequality in salaries.

And then it was almost time for Reiss-Anderson. First she talked about how women lawyers differ from their male counterparts: ‘Women are trained to be clever. They are good at exams and need the affirmation that provides. But in the law, you live in conflict. The other side will always say you are wrong. It is professional, not personal, and it is all part of advocacy.

‘Men have the self-belief to cope with this, but many women are tempted to go home and cry.’

Liotard ventured: ‘The culture will not change until we recognise that men and women are equal, but different.’