Women are under-represented at partner level despite the legal profession being on track to achieve gender parity this year, the Law Society has warned.
Latest statistics show that women currently make up 48% of solicitors. However, Society deputy vice-president Christina Blacklaws told an International Women’s Day event at Chancery Lane last night that men account for at least seven in 10 partners.
More than half of female solicitors work in-house. ‘Perhaps this is because sometimes employers in-house have recognised the benefit of agile-working practices as a way to attract and keep the best employees,’ Blacklaws said.
Solicitors attending last night’s event heard about some of the efforts being made to address diversity concerns.
Hogan Lovells partner Ruth Grant told the event she is confident the international firm will hit its 2022 target of 30% female partners.
Although gender ‘quotas’ are unlawful, several firms, including international firms Berwin Leighton Paisner and Taylor Wessing, have set target figures for women in the partnership.
Meanwhile, several solicitors at the event were keen to know more about multinational firm Ashurst’s ‘work allocation’ initiative. Under the scheme, work is allocated by a non-lawyer manager to associates based on knowledge around development, skills and interests. Partners are less closely involved in the allocation process.
As a result, work is distributed more evenly across the department, associates receive more exposure to different sorts of work, and partners have a larger pool of associates to work with when new matters arrive, Patel said.
Asked how solicitors can encourage their own firms adopt work allocation practices, Patel said: ‘When you’re selling it to partners, you have to think how they will benefit from it. Gender diversity is one point, but that’s not necessarily on the top of their list when you’re selling work allocation to them.
‘They’re looking at utilisation rates and making sure people are not sitting idle in their team.’
Work allocation is also helpful in alerting partners to staff who have returned from having children. She said: ‘When people return from maternity leave, we discovered there was a period of time when they were not that busy when they returned to work because they were almost forgotten because they have been away for so long.
‘Having work allocation in place enables the [manager] to alert partners that that person is available. You do not have that unconscious bias around the ability to work.’
Meanwhile statistics show that more than a third of law firms in England and Wales are now estimated to be majority owned by women.
Society president Robert Bourns said: 'The proportion of law firms majority owned by women far outstrips the national estimate of women-owned small and medium enterprises (SME), reflecting the changing culture in the legal sector.
'As the professional body for solicitors, we see real power in diversity, and support progress for the best, regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation, so our profession reflects the population it serves.
'We also know that businesses benefit from strong diversity, and inclusion policies and practices that help attract both clients and the best talent.'
An estimated 34% of the 9,403 firms in England and Wales in 2015 were majority owned by women compared to an estimated 21% for women-owned SMEs.
For the past 20 years, women have accounted for more than half of new entrants to the profession. More women graduated with first and upper second law degrees than men.
Bourns said: 'The Law Society and our Women Lawyers Division are committed to a range of measures to support career progression and satisfaction for women.
'We work closely with law firms and other organisations to encourage them to adopt more flexible working practices and to put in place policies that support discrimination-free career progression.'
Law firm initiatives to mark International Women's Day:
Hogan Lovells announced the completion of the first phase of its partnership with The Barefoot College. The firm is helping the college to train 400 women in rural parts of the world to become solar engineers and bring light to 20,000 homes. Hogan Lovells has provided pro bono advice on creating a non-profit presence in the UK and US, and advised the college on several projects.
Southern firm Martin Searle Solicitors is providing free advice on pregnancy and maternity rights to employers and employees this month as part of the firm's 'Mind the Bump 2017' campaign. Head of employment law Fiona Martin said this year's International Women's Day 'has a higher profile than ever but women seem to be facing more injustice and intolerance rather than gaining greater rights'.