A week after the German football side wreaked havoc with the Brazilian national pride, David Cameron has embarked on a brutal reshuffling of the Cabinet. Coincidence? Er… yes. More interesting therefore to look at the correlation between the PM’s drive to get more women into the Cabinet, and recent initiatives to encourage gender equality in UK law firms.
The average top 200 UK law firm would no doubt assert that women play an essential role in their success. Unfortunately, the statistics indicate that while women at leading law firms are well represented at associate level, that number plummets when it comes to the partnership.
Chambers & Partners’ Student Guide most recent diversity survey of the top 100 law firms gives depressing figures. On average, 23.3% of partners are women, compared with 56.5% of associates. At magic circle firms, the figures are even worse: on average 19.1% of partners and 49.1% of associates are women.
So what’s to be done? Top 10 law firm Eversheds announced earlier this year that it would be introducing targets for partner representation. They are aiming for 25% female partners by 2016 and 30% by 2020. According to a recent article from the Law Society, this move was triggered by declining partner numbers, and pressure from clients. Eversheds’ advice to other firms? Set realistic and measurable targets and send clear messages internally and externally.
We might also consider Ashurst’s strategy. Rather than focusing on the percentage of female partners, they are looking to increase the number of women in management roles, including board, committees and heads of practice areas. Steps taken in this regard include introducing independent specialists to moderate promotion boards. The target is 25% by 2015 and it is hoped that the strategy will also lead to an increase in women in the partnership. The impact of all this remains to be seen and of course it is only one aspect of the wider debate around diversity in the legal profession. Here are two more startling statistics:
- 28.6% of practising solicitors attended independent or public schools (as against 7% of the UK population) (see Chambers survey above)
- 39.3% of students taking the LPC in 2011/12 came from ethnic minority backgrounds, as against 23% of new trainees in the same year (see Law Society diversity profile of the profession 2014)
As Byfield friend Funke Abimbola, Roche UK managing counsel and diversity champion, recently said in an interview with Lex 100:
“Law firms really need to start at grass-root level and focus on disadvantaged groups, because otherwise law will continue being a very exclusive profession. If we’re really wanting to commit to diversity, we must look at those disadvantaged groups… The clients are increasingly diverse now. This is the thing that law firms need to appreciate. Clients who are committed to diversity are also looking for diversity in their legal panel.”
Let’s hope that Mr Cameron’s reshuffle will encourage more law firms to take this seriously.