Focus on talent not diversity to increase female partner numbers, says 30% Club

Diversity programmes should be changed for “talent strategies” to increase women partner numbers, according to a group of law firms.

The 30% Club is a collaboration of law firms and other professional services businesses aimed at addressing what it terms the “limited progress” of women to senior positions.

Ten firms – Ashurst, Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, CMS, Eversheds, Freshfields Brauckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith Freehills, Linklaters, Reed Smith and Slaughter and May – participated in a 10-week project to look at how to accelerate the pace of change. More than 700 fee-earners also contributed to an online feedback survey.

The key findings of the initiative were that neither attrition nor prioritisation was the root cause, with 80 per cent of firms having diversity as a strategic priority.

Instead, the 30% Club is calling for more consistent commitment to diversity at all levels, saying that its research suggests that the partnership promotion process does not evaluate ability and leadership styles equally.

The initiative calls for a move away from a diversity strategy focused on women towards a talent strategy with an emphasis on sponsorship.

Ashurst senior partner Charlie Geffen said his firm set itself a “realistic, not artificial” target of 25 per cent of senior management positions being held by women.

He said the leadership of firms are committed to diversity and that the industry is “not misogynist”, but is designed by men and needs the peer pressure of the 30% Club to add to the goodwill.

He said: “Improving the retention and development of women is key to the future success of all firms. Despite putting measures in place to address gender diversity, it’s fair to say that progress in the sector has been very limited.

“This initiative has been looking at how to translate intention into real change. The conclusions focus on the importance of examining processes for possible bias, working out how to extend real commitment to change to every partner, updating working practices and sharing best practice across the legal sector.

“Put simply, this initiative is a key step in addressing the challenges.”

Allen & Overy senior partner David Morley said: “It’s absolutely critical to the future success of our business that we attract and retain the best people, including lawyers who could be our future partners. Losing talented associates shrinks the potential pool from which those partners will emerge.

“Having contributed to the 30% Club initiative the onus must now be on us to take the ideas back to our firms to decide what will make the greatest impact.”

The 30% Club suggests that increased scrutiny of work allocation and yearly evaluations, as well as client feedback, would improve the process.

Minister for Women and Equalities Jo Swinson said there has been “real progress” and a big jump in the number of women on boards.

She said: “ “It’s a no-brainer that we need to draw on women’s talents. But the best way to do this is not through rigid regulation like the European Commission’s quotas idea. It’s about removing the barriers that hold women back.”

Recent diversity figures from the Black Solicitors Network showed that there is still a large drop-off in female representation between law firms’ junior and senior ranks (15 November 2012).

The Lawyer’s own research – taken from UK 200 figures – revealed that 23.5 per cent of all partners and 9.4 per cent of all equity partners across the UK’s largest 100 law firms by revenue are female (24 October 2010).