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As with motherhood and apple pie, it is impossible to find a firm that is against the idea of having more senior female lawyers. Yet while the number of women partners is increasing across the UK, the rise is still slow.
Women do not move as much as men, but their loyalty has not always been rewarded. It is a patchy performance across the UK. Furthermore, some firms' figures are skewed by their international network. Taylor Wessing's German operation, for example, has barely made up a female partner in three years. Clifford Chance's strong showing in hiring female laterals is mostly because of its renewed push into the New York market.
Certain themes recur, however. On the whole, firms with a broad spread of sectors, from commercial to the increasingly feminised disciplines such as matrimonial, personal injury (PI) and IP, do better than their peers.
There is another, rather more unstable, element too: those firms which have an established tradition of promoting from within tend to do better in appointing female partners, while firms which have a greater reliance on laterals will tend to hire more men, because women move less readily. The third factor is whether a firm already has a credible set of female role models within the partnership.
One firm stands out in terms of female representation at partner level. This is Manchester-based Pannone & Partners, a broad church of a firm which handles everything from family to corporate. With a turnover of £33.5m last year, it ranks 60th in The LawyerUK 100 Annual Report 2005 in turnover and 65th in profit per equity partner, which stood at £245,000 in 2004-05. Pannones has had a female managing partner for years and its percentage of female equity partners stands at 39 per cent - the highest in the country.
Pannones has two female heads of departments, Cath Jones, head of family, and Carol Jackson, head of the PI group. Marketing director Deborah Ascott-Jones has equity partner status. Within the equity partnership there are three women who work part time, which in practice means an afternoon off a week. The other flexible working female equity partner works 75 per cent of the week.
According to Joy Kingsley, managing partner at Pannones, the firm's strong showing is due in part to its history as a PI and private client firm. "In those departments there are more women who want to do that work than men," she says. "PI is one of the biggest departments - 25 per cent of turnover and 25 per cent of partners. I'd say the gender split is 60-40 female-male there. Matrimonial is even higher."
Kingsley is frank about the fact that Pannones' full-service practice has been a contributing factor. "The other thing about work type is that it's hard to progress in the corporate arena with a family," she declares. "Being honest about it, in our commercial and corporate side we have less than 39 per cent of partners, although there are women partners in all departments."
Unlike most other firms with strong female representation, Pannones has a strong record in lateral hiring. Over the past three years, 63 per cent of its partnership appointments have been lateral. Last year it made three lateral hires of women partners. Kingsley says that once you have a critical female mass of women in the partnership, women start to make the approaches themselves. However, she agrees that women are slightly more conservative in their career choices.
"Women are concerned how happy they are in their roles, so they may stay put," she suggests. "I hate generalising, but women are probably more self-critical. If a woman feels she isn't performing she's in my office telling me. So women are more worried innately about moving."
Nabarro Nathanson is the largest firm in the top 10 both in terms of its percentage of women partners (30 per cent) and women equity partners (28 per cent). It scores well on the internal promotions: over the past three years it has made up 19 internal candidates to partnership, of whom seven were women. (Interestingly, four of the women are based in Sheffield, underlining the trend that women in firms with a broader geographic spread are relatively well represented.) Nabarros has also hired 15 lateral partners, three of whom were women.
Like Pannones, Nabarros too has a female managing partner. However, Nabarros boss Nicky Paradise denies that this is a contributory factor. "It isn't because I'm managing partner," she insists, although the fact that Paradise went on maternity leave while in office probably helped to send out encouraging signals. "I was made a partner in 1990 and there were two senior female partners then. We have mentoring and coaching, but I doubt more women than men go on it.
"We're not a macho culture. There are some firms where you've got to be there till midnight, but we're not like that. I don't think we have any more female-friendly policies than any other firm.''
Two firms with female role models and with strong sectors within the more feminised disciplines also score well in female representation. Both Manches and Withers have a greater proportion of equity partners who are female than across the firms altogether - suggesting that there are plenty of women senior partners but that there is a potential gap in the junior ranks. This is also the case with Halliwells, which has restricted its equity; very few of its new promotions and hires have gone into the equity.
Withers tends not to recruit externally: only 22 per cent of its partnership appointments over the past three years have been lateral hires. Denton Wilde Sapte (DWS) is another firm with a low scoring rate of laterals: 68 per cent of its partnership appointments since 2003 have been internal promotions. Managing partner Howard Morris says the firm prefers to replace departed partners with promotions. "You can't buy a practice," he says. "People never quite deliver. You have to make lateral hires where you need a skill, not a practice - that does help women who stay in the firm and build up a practice."
Indeed, DWS is one of the higher-placed City firms. Women account for 24 per cent of its total partners and 23 per cent of its equity partners. "We shouldn't crow about it," notes Morris. "It should be nearer 50 per cent."
The male domain
If, however, there are similarities between firms with higher numbers of women in the partnerships, then equally there are elements linking the firms where women are an exotic breed.
It is considerably harder to make partner at any of the EC3 firms. Women have tended not to be that prominent in shipping and insurance circles.
There are not only slightly fewer women coming through the ranks than in other City firms, but female laterals are even rarer. When Clyde & Co took over aviation boutique Beaumont & Son, there was only one woman partner among them, for example.
Clydes senior partner Michael Payton can point to a few other female laterals in recent times, but admits that they are few and far between. "If one can generalise at all," he says, "women tend to be more loyal and not so demanding. Men move to advance themselves and women feel a greater loyalty to their firm."
Clydes has a better record than other EC3 firms, however. Women make up 7 per cent of its equity partners, whereas Ince & Co and Holman Fenwick & Willan women make up only 5 per cent.
West End firms also have a poor track record when it comes to female partners. They are, in proportional terms, among the biggest lateral hirers in the country, but this cuts down their chances of hiring women. Finers Stephens Innocent (FSI) is proportionally the biggest lateral hirer in the country: 86 per cent of its appointments in the past three years have been external candidates. It promoted one woman to partnership last year, but it does not have a single female equity partner.
FSI managing partner Anthony Barling says his firm made a number of female lateral hires prior to 2003 and that it also has a female partner who works part time. He adds that the firm lost an equity partner when she had her fifth child. "She'd decided enough was enough, and you can't really argue with that," he says.
However, Barling argues that smaller firms such as his have less room for manoeuvre. "We can only recruit those people who want to move," he says. "We actually found ourselves with a bit of a gap at the right level. It wasn't that we weren't looking at internal talent - we'd identified where we wanted to boost.
"If you want to go into different areas such as banking, or developing AIM work, you have to go and get the individuals and then develop your people underneath."
Fellow West End firm Howard Kennedy is another big lateral hirer. Second only to FSI, 74 per cent of its new partners in three years have been lateral hires, and while 17 per cent of the partnership is female, only 5 per cent of its equity partnership is made up of women. (The lateral hire figures do not include Howard Kennedy's recruitment last month of Susan Aslan and Sue Charles from Olswang.)
Corporate head Alan Banes says that, although there are very few women partners, two women head departments at the firm - namely, private client and employment. "I suppose we're conscious of it and we're looking for a balance," he says. "I suppose it will happen in the course of time."
Here's the rub
However, the issue here is equity partnership; women are not achieving it at the same rate as men. There is a logjam building up at the non-equity partner level. According to figures provided to The Lawyer by the top 100 UK law firms, in 28 practices women account for more than a quarter of partners. In only 11 firms, however, do women account for a quarter of equity partners. Pannones' Kingsley suggests that in certain circumstances women make the choice to step down their commitment after children. " The position of salaried partner suits those women," she says.
And here the major City firms do even worse. At Linklaters only 7 per cent of its equity partners are women; at Ashurst it is 8 per cent; and at Clifford Chance - for all its new US female laterals - it is 9 per cent. Since the larger law firms try to mask the number of equity partners, the low level of female representation will be pushed under the carpet.
Plenty of firms say they are happy to give women responsibility, but on the whole women still do not have the power and status that comes with equity. This is partly because women have tended to choose disciplines outside the best rewarded ones of corporate and finance. But if the gap between women within the equity and non-equity ranks continues, law firms will have to explain themselves to the female associates they want to keep. Ã¢Â€Â¢
Pannones' female contingent (l-r): Joy Kingsley, managing partner; Deborah Ascott-Jones, marketing director; Jenny Urwin, clinical negligence partner; Catherine Jones, head of family; Alicia Rendell, personal injury partner