The firm has a long way to go. As just 15 per cent of its partnership is female, driving this change at the magic circle firm is a hefty challenge.
Clifford Chance managing partner David Childs admits that it will not be easy.
“None of us are happy about the figure being around 15 per cent,” says Childs. “Speaking to junior female lawyers, it’s not good enough to say there’s just 15 per cent of the partnership female without making it clear that we want that to change. We wanted to give ourselves a goal to be able to make headway.”
However, although the magic circle firm announced its new goal in its 2009 corporate responsibility review, the actual details of how the firm intends to attain 30 per cent are still being thrashed out.
Childs says the firm is considering a range of options, including reviewing its partnership agreement to incorporate more flexible working opportunities.
“There’s no one thing that will solve the problem,” says Childs. “There’s no quick fix. It’s a long-term goal that we’re very focused on. It’s something that all firms face and there are many ways you can approach it.”
Aggressively pursuing a dramatic increase in female partners is problematic, Childs argues. Firms need to find creative ways to change their cultures and encourage females to strive for partnership.
“There’s a real concern around positive discrimination,” he says. “Women don’t want to be promoted on that basis. We need to find ways to change things over time. It’s a gradual process.”
While Clifford Chance and its magic circle competitors see encouraging women to the partnership as important to their futures, not everyone agrees.
“The main question I’d ask is, how and why are firms doing this?” says Dawn Dixon, a partner at Webster Dixon and a former member of the Association of Women Solicitors (AWS). “Not every woman wants to be a partner. The reality is that many want to do their job, live their life and spend time with their family. Partnership is not the Holy Grail.”
However, others welcome the move. “This is a very valuable initiative,” says AWS chair Clare McConnell. “What’s important is support from top-level management. Change is only possible if it has full support from the wider firm.”
Earlier this year (11 May) The Lawyer reported that the level of female associates made up to partner this year in the top 30 UK firms had risen slightly, from 25 per cent of new partners in 2008 up to 27 per cent.
It is a small change, but it is a start. Of the 24 firms that made promotions, 13 promoted more female partners than in 2008.
Different firms are finding different ways to tackle the issue. As reported by The Lawyer (14 September), Allen & Overy (A&O) is piloting a career development scheme aimed at teaching associates to communicate with clients and colleagues. The programme, which has been devised for senior associates, is aimed specifically at women lawyers.
The pilot involves a number of workshops targeting different skills, including building client relationships and learning how to communicate ’powerfully’.
Clifford Chance has implemented a range of initiatives, including women’s networks and programmes, mentoring programmes, maternity coaching and flexible working policies. But the firm recognises that this is not enough.
“We need to look very carefully at where we can improve these programmes and initiatives,” says Childs. “We’re in the process of discussing exactly how we can do this.”
Of the five global regions Clifford Chance’s Central and Eastern European (CEE) network had the lowest percentage of female partners at 8.3 per cent for 2009. In 2008 6.7 per cent of the CEE partnership was female.
Asia had the highest percentage of female partners in 2009 at 25 per cent, which dropped slightly on the previous year’s figure of 28.7 per cent.
Of the magic circle, A&O saw the most dramatic rise in female partner promotions, up from four in 2008 to eight in 2009 out of a total of 20. By contrast, Linklaters dropped from five in 2008 down to just two in 2009.
Clifford Chance’s female and male partner statistics are a stark contrast to the statistics on lawyers.
More than half of the legal staff are women in each of the Americas, Asia and the Middle East regions, with the highest coming in at 54.7 per cent in Asia. The lowest is 44.1 per cent in the CEE.
“We all recognise that the number of women coming through the ranks is a problem,” says Childs. “It’s a problem for every firm.”