20 YEARS OF THE LAWYER: DIVERSITY
5 December 2007
28 May 1996
13 May 1996
15 September 2008
14 April 2008
11 May 2009
The task of breaking down the old boy network is ongoing, but huge strides in cultural diversity have been made in the legal sector since 1987Twenty years ago, Robert Perkins at Moore & Blatch, a Southampton-based firm, wrote to The Lawyer detailing the kind of support that “lady lawyers” would need if they were to combine motherhood, marriage and a rewarding career. “A first-rate trained career nanny (…) proper domestic arrangements (…) possibly a willingness to pay boarding school fees (…) an understanding and co-operative husband,” the letter states.
Perkins’ text may sound quaint now, but he was making a progressive point. Having a successful career is as dependent upon individual circumstances as it is upon individual ability.
In 1990 The Lawyer found that 56 per cent of women who had entered the profession in 1977 had left within a decade. It wasn’t until 1988 that Britain had its first black silks – Leonard Woodley and John Roberts. And the relatively recent introduction of diversity monitoring in firms means there is no data across all social groups for that period.
Prejudice was much more explicit 20 years ago. Michael Webster, chair of the Black Solicitors’ Network, recalls: “At law school one of the country’s leading playwrights made racist jokes in a keynote lecture and it didn’t make front page news, I can tell you.” Racism from an early client led him to have to “take a stand”.
Susan Aslan, a partner at Howard Kennedy, was asked in a trainee interview where she envisaged herself in 10 years time. “I said I imagined myself being a female partner and the interviewer smirked, saying he didn’t think there would be any female partners. I thought: why would I want to work in such a firm?”
Such views were defended publicly, even by senior management. In 1988 Mark Sheldon, a senior partner at Linklaters & Paines, said discriminatory questioning at interview level was “important. If someone is going to leave after six months and we have to train them, then it’s relevant.”
The prevailing ethos inevitably affected people’s choices about how they organised their lives. “I had three children in less than three years, taking the minimal leave – about three weeks – which many then did to signal commitment,” says Laura Carstensen, a former partner at Slaughter and May. “Regrets? Absolutely – but if I had done otherwise would I have made it? Not sure.”
After having been out at law school, Tim Hailes, associate general counsel at JPMorgan Chase, says he “went back in the closet” when he started his training contract at Wilde Sapte because of nervousness about how the partners would react. Workplace culture has always varied enormously between top- and mid-tier firms and between the capital and the regions. “It’s so easy when you’re in London to have a London-centric perspective,” says Geraldine Cotton, who runs the Association of Women Solicitors Returners Cambridge-based Course.
Aslan would agree. The Lawyer’s 1992 survey of women partners placed her firm at the time, DJ Freeman, at the top of the league with 28.3 per cent. Clifford Chance, Linklaters and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer all struggled to scrape more than 8 per cent, while Slaughter and May was at the bottom of the biggest firms with just 6 per cent . “Women often don’t go for the super large firms because they’re afraid they might be discriminated against,” says Aslan. “We made the most of the fact we were getting high quality female candidates put off going to the magic circle.”
Prejudice is no longer as explicit and firms encourage their lawyers to reach their full potential through putting support structures in place. “People are less accommodating of values that inhibit mobility and career progression,” says Hailes.
“There aren’t many large city firms with an Australian senior partner,” adds Nicky Paradise, Nabarro managing partner since 1999. “I had a baby while I was a managing partner. People go through different stages in their personal lives. We are conscious of that.”
These days management are better able to reflect these values because firms have more experience in doing so. In the late 1980s Geraldine Cotton was at Debenham & Co. The management there tried to accommodate the fact that she had young children.
“But they had no practice,” she recalls. “The senior partner would roll in at 6.20pm and say ‘can we discuss such and such a case’, and I had to get the 6.30 bus to go meet the nanny who was leaving at 7.”
The competitive nature of the UK legal market and the presence of US firms wielding their chequebooks has made retention a key issue for British law firms – helped by wider social and technological advancement. Nevertheless, a glance at current statistics indicates that there are still structural limitations to greater equality. Sixty-two per cent of trainees are women, but they make up only 18 per cent of partners. In the bar women make up only 10 per cent of QCs, despite representing 51.6 per cent of those called to the bar in 2006.
“It’s not easy being a woman at the bar,” says Aswini Weereratne, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers and mother of one. “I know from my discussions with other women that I’m not alone in that. It’s largely because women have become mothers and have to reach the pinnacles of their career. What happens to women? They don’t reach the top.”
The situation is similar among black and ethnic minority lawyers. There were 15.3 per cent black and minority ethnic (BME) pupils in 2006, but only 10 per cent of QCs are BME. “Law firms are seen as being meritocracies, but to shine you have to be on the biggest and best teams to be able to fast-track,” Webster argues.
There tends to be a domino effect in good practice. Initiatives such as the Stonewall Diversity Champions programme encourage firms to sign up to progressive policies, which their competitors may then seek to emulate. As a critical mass of good role models emerges at the top, talented individuals further down are more likely to stick around. Webster chooses a football analogy to illustrate the point: “If you go back to the 1980s or early 90s the legal profession was akin to the football league in the 1970s: there were only one or two black players.” It was their blackness that was used to differentiate them, rather than their football skills.
“It’s only when you get a lot of people coming through that you can start seeing past their colour and look at their abilities,” he adds. “We need to bring the legal profession up to the level of the Premiership.”