New Law Society president Christina Blacklaws is a woman in a hurry. Gender equality, disruptive technology and wellbeing in the profession are high on a crowded to-do list, she tells the Gazette.
Jurisprudence, Oxford University
Qualified as a solicitor in 1991; set up the Co-operative Legal Services family law offering in 2011 (later becoming their director of policy); became director of innovation at Cripps in 2014; member of the Family Justice Council; trustee of LawWorks; Council member for the Women Lawyers Division
President of the Law Society, 2018/19
‘Throw everything at it and then rest afterwards.’
That is Christina Blacklaws’ brisk summation of how she intends to approach a presidential year that began last Thursday when she succeeded Joe Egan.
In reality, Blacklaws has been anything but idle in the two years she spent limbering up for the role as deputy vice-president and then vice-president. A polished media performer, she is already well-known for fronting the equality campaign Women in Leadership in law.
The new president’s ‘gender agenda’ is auspiciously timed, as the #MeToo campaign and mandatory gender pay gap reporting keep the plight of professional women in the foreground. Also serendipitous is the fact that in 2017 women overtook men as a majority of practising solicitors; and in 2019 it will be 100 years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act allowed four women with first-class degrees to pass their law exams and become lawyers.
Sadly, the headline statistic picked up by the national media flatters a profession where inequality and discrimination undoubtedly remain rife. Centenary celebrations at the Law Society-sponsored First 100 Years project will be long and loud, but there is a lot more to do. As Blacklaws points out, women have accounted for over 60% of newly qualified solicitors since 1990 and yet only 28% of partners currently in private practice are female.
We are long past the point where demographics can explain that glaring disparity. ‘The glacial pace of progress has led many women like me, who have been in the profession for a very long time, to feel extremely frustrated,’ she says.
‘Of that 28% at partner level, a major proportion are at small firms, or work as sole practitioners. In “big law” there is not that percentage. We have had, over many years, a pipeline of talent coming through. You’ve got to assume that the women who are assuming newly qualified roles are getting them because they are the right people.
‘Talent is evenly spread and not specific to gender, race or any other characteristic. So it is clear women are not being promoted and that there is a huge attrition of talent.’
Why is this disparity so seemingly intractable? Five years ago, recalls Blacklaws, the biggest perceived barrier to career advancement was the absence of flexible working opportunities. But in March this year, when the Society marked International Women’s Day by releasing the findings of the largest-ever survey on women in law, ‘unconscious bias’ was found to be the bigger culprit. Just one in 10 respondents reported that unconscious bias training is being carried out consistently in their organisation.
Flexible working remains a sticking point, of course. Nine in 10 respondents to the survey considered a flexible working culture critical to improving diversity; yet 37% work in organisations that have a flexible working provision which is not consistently enforced. One in 10 work in organisations that have no such provisions.
‘This is a real problem for sophisticated legal jurisdictions and we are by no means the worst,’ Blacklaws comments. One ‘really significant’ career barrier, she adds, is that promotion and business development networking opportunities are so male-oriented – ‘golf days, a trip to the rugby, Friday nights in the pub.
‘They have a gender element to them which can be excluding.’
CALL TO ACTION
Last Thursday the Law Society launched a Women in Leadership in Law toolkit which offers an ‘opportunity for activism, enabling women and law to be change-makers and leaders, and to engage men in a positive, supportive way’.
The toolkit alludes to evidence collected so far, the key topics identified for roundtable discussions of both women and men, and activities for individuals and groups to take forward.
Calls to action for men include commitments to: discuss gender equality with male colleagues; encourage participation in Harvard University’s gender IQ test, so individuals can better understand their own gender bias; and commit to ask a senior male in authority to implement changes in their organisation.
Engaging with men is critical in attempting to ‘shift the needle’ here, she adds: ‘For example I know men who’ve been working flexibly, or part-time, for years, but they haven’t been open about it. It hasn’t even been known about in their firm or business.
‘Actually, it then becomes less of a gender issue and more of a generational issue. You’ve got young men who do aspire to be able to spend time with their family in a significant caring role. Frankly, they are put off by firms where this is seen as career suicide if you request it.’
Blacklaws alludes approvingly to those legal businesses which have gone far beyond warm words in taking radical measures to challenge the patriarchal culture. Some have key performance indicators incorporating diversity and inclusion which affect remuneration, for example; others reward people for passing on work or developing the team. ‘It’s not about the “billable hour being king”,’ she adds. ‘It is recognising that you need lots of other contributions to keep clients happy and do quality work.’
Blacklaws was personally instrumental in nudging some of the big City law firms to include partners in their recent gender pay gap reports. Excluding partners on the grounds they are not employees is stretching a point, to say the least. A clutch of leading commercial firms relented and agreed to provide the data when they realised how controversial that omission was proving to be.
The Commons Treasury Committee last month declared it ‘outrageous’ that firms are circumventing the spirit of the legislation by omitting partners. MPs cited criticism of firms’ actions from economic secretary John Glen and said that chancellor Philip Hammond should become ‘equally vociferous’ on the issue.
Blacklaws would like to extend the principle of pay transparency further than a small (though populous) subset of commercial giants. ‘Only 109 law firms [with over 250 employees] actually have to report on their gender pay gap,’ she notes. ‘We’ve got about 9,500 firms in total. We really want to encourage every firm to look at their own statistics.’
According to the Society’s March survey, which attracted nearly 8,000 responses, 60% of 6,533 people who responded to specific questions on gender pay gap reporting requirements said they were aware of a gap in their organisation – but only 16% reported steps being taken to close the gap.
The power of the client to effect positive change is huge here. Blacklaws cites US tech company HP, which last year threatened to withhold up to 10% of costs invoiced by law firms if they do not meet minimum diversity requirements. Other global clients offer a ‘reward’ of 2% or 3% of the bill, she says.
As president-elect Blacklaws had already begun traversing the country collating qualitative data on women’s experiences in the law, through an engagement exercise which will encompass 100 women’s roundtables. ‘I’ve facilitated 10 so far,’ she says. ‘Some of the scenarios women have spoken about have been hair-raising. What is happening in 2018 in relation to inappropriate and even illegal behaviour in terms of employment law is shocking.’
Engaging men as gender equality role models means they will be invited to their own roundtables: ‘We are asking the women to get their [male] general counsel, senior or managing partner, or head of division to come to one of our men’s roundtables, which we will be holding over the autumn and winter,’ Blacklaws says.
‘In the current climate I accept that it’s quite a challenge for men to put their heads above the parapet here. But the really important thing to note is that this whole exercise is not for 50% of us – it’s for 100% of us. The range of tools that the Society has been developing are not aimed at advantaging women alone. It’s about having practices that work for every member of staff – and that includes the partners.’
This observation segues into another topic she wishes to address: mental health and wellbeing in the law, which the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division has done much to highlight.
There is no panacea. As Blacklaws points out, ‘agile working’ can be an encumbrance rather than an enabler when the perception is that you are ‘always on’.
She observes: ‘It’s beyond our profession; a societal issue. The first thing I do in the morning and the last thing I do at night is look at my emails, look at my social media activity. As a society we are obsessed, addicted.
‘We don’t have those distinctions between work life, and home and social life anymore. We need to work through that as a profession. We’re still trying to find our feet.’
An example? ‘Can we replace the 9 to 5, or the 7 to 11, that you have in many law firms with an environment where there is much more flow between work and home life? So if you’re working in the evening, could it be that you’ve had three hours off in the afternoon to pick up the kids and give them tea? Identifying best practice is going to be a big part of the Women in Leadership programme.’
The profession’s multi-faceted campaign to improve the lot of women in the law could keep Blacklaws occupied 24/7, should she so choose. But that is far from the limit of her presidential ambitions.
Blacklaws will also use her tenure to proselytise for the capacity of disruptive legal technology to have a transformative impact on legal practice.
‘I take a very robust view on this. Solicitors have always adapted to change and have always been successful. I don’t think this will prove to be any different, but we do need to wake up and smell the coffee here. As legal businesses we must embrace these new solutions to remain relevant, or someone else is going to come along and eat our lunch.’
One strand of the Society’s work is to study the application of artificial intelligence algorithms in the justice system, through a year-long investigation into the impact of technology. Chaired by Blacklaws, the recently established Public Policy Technology and Law Commission will meet in public three times. It is in keeping with the tenor of her presidency that its lead members are all women – the others are Sylvie Delacroix, professor in law and ethics at the University of Birmingham Law School, and Sofia Olhede, professor at the Department of Statistical Science, University College London.
The commission’s formation reflects growing concern about the advent of so-called ‘Schrödinger’s justice’ – in which decisions are taken by self-learning systems impervious to examination or challenge.
‘We’re going to compile evidence, both written and oral, and everything is going to be placed in the public domain,’ Blacklaws says. ‘That in itself is unusual, but we thought it an important way to operate. One of the great attributes of the Law Society is its convening power – getting the right people together.’
The second element of the technology initiative is a partnership between the Society and banking giant Barclays to incubate the next generation of legal tech businesses. An ‘Eagle Lab’ to be opened in Notting Hill Gate, West London, will aim to bridge the gap between emerging innovations and law firms by housing start-up businesses and acting as a hub for collaboration. This is one of several technology incubators set up by the bank around the country and the first to focus on legal technologies.
‘We want to ensure that what these startups develop is informed by real knowledge and understanding of how lawyers operate and the data they use, so they can deliver products and services that are going to work in our profession,’ Blacklaws says.
‘There is a huge opportunity here for small law firms to punch above their weight by deploying new technology. You don’t necessarily need an army of IT experts. You need a solicitor and a computer and if you can drag and drop, then you can use some of these products.’
To aid the demystification process, the Society will host a series of roadshows to showcase the new offerings and ‘ensure every law firm will be able to make an informed decision about what’s right for their business’.
Blacklaws concludes on a characteristically positive note: ‘This profession is an amazing success story and we must not overlook that. I am so pleased to have this concentrated period of time to make a difference.’
She is already doing so, clearly.