For the second year running, the number of female managing partners in The Lawyer's Top 100 survey remains at three. This leaves open to question whether the rise of women has put a brick through the glass ceiling of male dominance yet.
None of the three – one of whom is currently on maternity leave – say they experienced any discrimination or barrier on their advance through their firms. But there is growing disillusionment among many women solicitors over the well-worn argument that it is just a matter of time before women become more fairly represented throughout the profession.
Alison Parkinson, chair of the 8,000-member Association of Women Solicitors, and a senior solicitor with Railtrack's legal department, says: "I think it is still the case that you have to be exceptional and better than the men to get to the top.
"I do not think we will see major changes until the generation of men in their 50s who are running firms have retired."
Joy Kingsley, managing partner of Manchester-based Pannone & Partners, maintains that although she stopped work on 29 March and had her second child on 1 April, being at the top does not require extraordinary qualities.
"You do not have to be Superwoman to do this job and have a family, although you do have to be well organised, have good child care arrangements, and a supportive family."
Kingsley finds it surprising that the number of women managing partners has not increased. However, she believes the management styles of some firms are "Dickensian", while in others the job traditionally goes to the oldest partner, or is seen as a "poisoned chalice".
"Society does still look on men as the main bread-winners, with women fitting their careers around the family. Part of the problem is also that women themselves are often not sure what sort of commitment they want to give to working life," she says.
Lesley MacDonagh, joint managing partner of top 10 firm Lovell White Durrant and mother of three children aged 11, five and two, says she believes the tiny number of women managing partners is due to "the passage of time rather than resistance or anything more sinister".
Almost 50 per cent of Lovell White Durrant's legal staff are women, although at partnership level, women make up just 13 per cent of the 138 partners.
MacDonagh says: "The difference in numbers is due to flow-through. You will always have a lower percentage of women going forward simply because some choose to stay at home once they have children."
Margaret Robertson was elected to the three-member management board of London firm Withers a year ago.
"Women have been in the profession for a long time now, and the barriers are breaking down," she says. "I think it is just a question of time before all of them go. It may not be happening fast enough for some people, but I think it is a question of perseverance."
Robertson believes the recession is a significant factor in the disenchantment felt by both male and female solicitors. "It is more difficult to get partnership and people are having to wait longer, which affects women more," she says.
"If it is taking 10 years rather than six, then pressures to have children may conflict with promotion, so women can end up becoming pregnant before becoming a partner, and then they drop out of the picture," says Robertson, who is married but does not have children.
"I think the profession is going through a difficult time, but I think women should be heartened because there is nothing to stop them but themselves."
For other woman it is still too early to say whether the three female managing partners represent a breakthrough. Gill Briant, partner at Denton Hall, says it takes enormous stamina to combine family and career and stick it out to the top.
She says one change which could help women generally would be a widening of the recruitment net for managing partners to include other professionals, such as accountants or finance directors.
Susan Burnell is senior partner of Charles Lucas & Marshall, which has offices in Newbury, Hungerford, Wantage and Swindon. A mother of two teenagers, she became the firm's public face two years ago, after 26 years with it.
"I am always being asked to talk to women's groups about prejudice but I don't ever remember having a problem. It may be more difficult in London and other big cities which are more traditional, but I happen to think if you are able you will come through."
Lucy Winskell, a partner in Newcastle solicitors Wilkinson Maughan, and chair of the Young Solicitors Group, is less optimistic. She says many lawyers, male and female, are demoralised by working long hours for fewer rewards.
"Young women entering the profession are motivated, ambitious and bright, and see no reason why they should not become partner," Winskell says. "But when they do not succeed, disenchantment sets in and leads them to wonder if they are being subjected to indirect discrimination."
While more firms are formalising their partnership arrangements, particularly with respect to provision of maternity care, she says there are still too many where female partners are left to negotiate their own arrangements.
"Women need to seek the best opportunities and put themselves first," Winskell says. "That could mean more moves between firms, less loyalty and, for some, the draw of more rewarding opportunities outside private practice."
Clare McGlynn, vice-chair of the Young Women Lawyers group, co-wrote last summer's survey Soliciting Equality, which was conducted among the top 100 law firms.
She says the survey found the traditional argument that the small number of women partners was due to a historical shortage of women entrants could no longer be sustained.
"Law Society statistics show that in 1986, 44 per cent of solicitors entering the profession were women. Nine years on, it might have been expected that a similar percentage of new partners would be women. But, at the 58 firms responding to the survey, only 25 per cent of new partners last year were women," McGlynn says.
where the women are
In The Lawyer Top 100, 85 per cent of firms supplied details of the number of woman assistants, and on average 44 per cent of assistants are female. In the 89 per cent of firms which supplied details of partners, 14 per cent of partners are women.
The firms with the highest proportion of women partners are Oxford firm Cole and Cole with 29 per cent, and in London, Reynolds Porter Chamberlain with 25 per cent; Trowers & Hamlin with 24.5 per cent; and Gouldens and Withers with 23 per cent.
But it is in the regions that women are making the most impact. At Shoosmiths & Harrison, 70 per cent of the assistants are female. It is followed by Hammond Suddards, Pannone & Partners, Irwin Mitchell, Wragge & Co and Edge & Ellison, all with over 60 per cent.