Equality won’t happen on its own, we have to make it happen: An analysis of gender equality in the legal profession.

“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made…it shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sadly died on Saturday. Ginsburg struggled against blatant sexism to become the second women to serve as a justice on the nation’s highest court; she was an advocate for gender equality and soon became a feminist icon. This impeccable woman was appointed in 1993 by President Clinton, and it really got me thinking – how much have things moved forward since then.

In a similar time period, when Ruth Harris joined Ashurst in 1995 she made history. Not for closing a deal, or for bringing in a major client, or even for her merit. Ruth Harris made history for being among the first female lawyer allowed to wear trousers in the UK. Although we like to think that rapid development has occurred in the legal profession since then, statistics show otherwise.

NB: This article is very much focused on the solicitor profession, for a more focused look at gender equality in the barrister profession, see this article.

Representation of Women

I’m sure we all know the quote that there are “more CEOs named John as there are female CEOs” – sadly a similar picture can be seen across all senior positions in the legal profession. That is that the presence of men far outweigh the number of females in senior positions – not that an overwhelming number of partners are called John! According to the Law Society, women have represented more than 60% of entrants into the legal profession since 1990, yet as of January 2020, only 33% of partners in law firms are females. This changes greatly depending on the firm, but let’s look more closely at the magic circle.

These are all taken from the Diversity Statistics published by each firm each year. Unfortunately, not firms report these statistics the same way, with some only publishing the London office, and others have not yet released the 2020 statistics.

FirmPercentage of Female Associates (2020)Percentage of Female Partners (2020)
Allen & Overy (London Office)50%22%
Clifford Chance (Global Statistics)51.7%19.8%
Freshfields (London Office)<50%17%
Linklaters (2019, Global Statistics)48%20%
Slaughter and May (2019, Global Statistics)43.1%20.9%

The situation with full equity partnerships – where all partners must buy into the business – is worse, with a smaller proportion of women making it into this bracket. In fact, the distinction between equity and salaried partners is often overlooked. A salaried partner is technically a non-equity partner – this means that although they earn the salary of a partner, they have no voting power and are therefore not adequately represented at the top. Women are far less likely to be equity partners in firms, as demonstrated by  UK firm Eversheds Sutherland’s whose partners are one-quarter women but the firm’s equity partner quotient is 16 per cent female.

Gender Pay Gap

Not only are there fewer women, but those women who do make it are typically being paid far less when they do finally make partner. I think the figure that shocked me most was that last year Macfarlanes admitted to paying its female staff (in 2019) 75.3% less than men on average, which it put down to a small number of women in its partnership and a paucity of women in senior roles. Whatever the reason, I think we can all agree that such a pay gap is both outrageous and offensive to women.

The below is the hourly comparison of pay, calculated using the mean, with the 2019 figures.

FirmGender Pay Gap including Partners (excluding bonus figures)Gender Pay Gap excluding Partners (excluding bonus figures)
Allen & Overy61.5%7.4%
Clifford Chance65.7%4.8%
Slaughter and May66.4%16.2%

What steps can law firms take to support women in their businesses?

It is clear that there is a distinct level at which many women disappear after having children. Until issues of childcare and flexibility are addressed, women can too easily be held back from the top. But it’s not just about children. Maintaining a work-life balance is also key – we work to have a life ultimately (Sarah Porter, Baker McKenzie). People have different priorities, and everyone has a right to think about what is immoveable in their life. A healthy mind will allow lawyers to provide the best advice for their clients. Firms need to recognise that by supporting their employee’s choices, and allowing them to be possible will create a better environment for them.

Being a woman alone is not a barrier in becoming a lawyer. But being a women with other commitments has the potential to be a barrier. One law student was quoted here saying that she felt this strain during her studies with attendance often required between 9am-6pm, yet most childcare facilities only cater until 5.30pm.

Lady Hale’s recent prediction stated that gender parity in the judiciary can be achieved by 2033. Whilst possible, more needs to be done before we can achieve this. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and firms realise that. Some firms have said that fewer women apply for top roles. In fact, Jo Dooley, Allen & Overy’s UK head of diversity and inclusion said: “It’s not that women aren’t performing well when they go up for partnership – the success of women who go up for partnership is higher than men – the issue is there weren’t more women going for it in the first place.”

What we need to first work out is why women decide not to apply for partnership, or why they leave the profession. Is this decision exacerbated by the behaviour of firms? Historically, the answer would be yes. The introduction of blind screening of applications, quotas and more flexible working patterns are all good indicators that the legal profession is changing. Legal firms need to actively diversify workforces, so they more accurately reflect the societies they serve, so here’s hoping that there is just a time lag between implementation of policy’s and results.

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