UK’s top firms fail to increase female equity partner figures

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  • These figures, albeit better than 5 years ago in some instances, are pretty disgraceful.

    To guage real progress (or lack of it), each firm should have broken down its trainee intake for the last 20 years into male and female.

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  • It is a sad fact that while firms may be more open to part-time and flexible working than they were 10 years ago, in the main this directly translates into automatically 'checking out' of a career path to partnership.

    So it does not necessarily follow that a large firm that offers these working practices is more likely to make up female partners - the contrary is often true. The larger firms typically introduce these practices for their own benefit - to stop the march of female associate talent out of the door to the next size tier below - not to boost the numbers of female partners.

    The majority of female lawyers, whether willing (or able) to have children are no different to their male counterparts who want to be equity partners, despite what firms' PR machines would have you think. The chosen few get through and the firms shout about them from the rooftops as part of their much needed PR.

    If I had a daughter, I would urge her to read the Law Society's March 2010 report by Insight Oxford Ltd on the subject (Obstacles and barriers to the short and long term career development of female lawyers) and look elsewhere for a rewarding career.

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  • The only option is to lower the bar for partnership for femaile candidates i.e. positive discrimination. The commitment needed to make partnership now in leading London firms is just too much for women given the need to balance with other things, such as child care. Women should be measured against, say, 75% targets as compared with me. However, they should get the same drawings as men once made up as a partner.

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  • 11.53 am - How is it possibly justified for the bar to be lowered for women, just because they would like to have more of a life outside of work? As a father, I would like to be able to spend more time with my children and lighten the childcare load for my wife (who also works) - does this mean the bar should be lowered for me too? If so, great, but I suspect most firms will not see this as a workable model.

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  • In my experience one of the main objections of women rising through the ranks in law is not always outright discrimination per se (though that does exist, but is often difficult to prove), but the host of 'micro-inequities', tiny, day-to-day things which create an environment in some firms which is subtly hostile at the upper end to women (this situation is also very live for minority lawyers of various different situations). This ranges from pretty flagrant stuff - deal commencement meetings always on a Saturday, choice of male-orientated social events - to almost intangible things which give women the idea that a firm is run by and for the 'Boys' Club'.

    Positive discrimination seems to me to solve little, causing resentment on both sides. An acknowledgement that there is a problem, and a spreading of awareness that there is no level playing field as things stand are key elements, but ultimately an organisation has to want to change and many men - as some of the comments show - just don't want to or don't see why they should.

    Clients, obviously, have the potential to try to force their suppliers' hands but this seems unlikely to be able to affect partners in any meaningful way, even if the desire were there, which I'm not sure it is.

    The profession as a whole may ask itself whether it is healthy for its upper echelons to be so entirely dominated by men, but unless there is widespread cultural change, I can't see any radical improvement on the horizon.

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  • This topic always raises the issue of the difficulties female lawyers have juggling work and childcare. Why is childcare still viewed by so many as a female issue?

    How often are men asked (by colleagues, friends or family) whether they'll return to work after becoming a father and, if so, whether they will want to work part-time? There is so often an assumption that if one parent is not going to return to work, or is going to work part-time, it will be the mother. Why should this be the case?

    If more men did the same amount of childcare as their wives/partners then perhaps juggling childcare would be less of a "female lawyers' issue", less of a taboo and more just a fact of life - like in Scandinavian countries.

    Perhaps the starting point is for the female lawyers to demand that their husbands/partners do this - and for more male lawyers to be seen taking on the same amount of childcare responsiblity as their wives/partners?

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  • Poor Simmons - it will only get worse with the backwards step of electing new managing and senior partners who seem set to dismantle some of the previous regime's efforts to create a more enlightened business. Current internal initiatives seem to point to either a major outsourcing operation or a sale of the firm so presumably where they rank in something like a female partners list is of little concern

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  • @ 11:53 so-called "positive discrimination" is just as bad as any form of discrimination - its a pure and simple euphemism for discriminating against thse who don't fit in to the right category, here it would mean if the candidates happened to be male they would suffer for having a Y chromosome.

    All partners should be chosen one one fact only - MERIT. When consdiering candidates, those making the choices should by all means have a set of CV's in front of them but with names and personal info blacked out or cut off from the top. Better yet, get the candidates to fill out an application form with a randomly assigned number on to identify once a decision has been made. Whilst this may result in stagnation of the male-female ratio due to maternity leave, if it is based on merit then I would never object - and with the number of "mature" students already with a kid in tow this ought come down anyway.

    Plus the advantage that fully anonymous selection would abolish the ridicuous old-school-tie network and remove the ability of those partners/HR managers/whoever is responsible who went to a Russell group University to snobbishly choose their own.

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  • Numerical parity seems impossible while firms are unwilling to contemplate part-time partnership as a rule trather than as an exception. Able women tend to have to opt for an alternative career path to partnership if they want to play an active parental role.

    The female partnership figures therefore reflect merely the incidence of women who want partnership more than they want either children or day-to-day parenthood. That doesn't leave firms much to crow about.

    Women also continue to lose out from an androcratic view in partnerships of what constitutes a good lawyer, and a good partner. The quiet influencer is too often drowned out by the arrogant self-publicist. The poor management skills of so many partners makes it bewlidering that this particular penny hasn't yet dropped, and that partner assessment processes haven't been refined to address this.

    Partners choose the new partners they want; and they choose them in their own image.

    I am male, by the way, and my own thirty-something version of arrogant self-promotion was somehow judged enough to merit partnership, back in the day. But the best lawyer I know is my wife, who would have made a far better partner than me, if she hadn't decided to become a PSL instead.

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  • @ Anonymous | 12-Sep-2011 5:05 pm

    One could write a 10,000 essay on the issues surrounding childcare and men and women, but one point that doesn't get raised very often is the following: it is seen as the norm for a woman to have several years "missing" from her CV becuase of childcare. This is much less accepted for men and I am sure that many men worry that a year or two (or more) missing from their CV because they were looking after the kids will be viewed by stuffy employers as the equivilent as a spell in prison.

    It would be great if these old fashioned attitudes were to change but it will take decades more.

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  • @ Anonymous | 12-Sep-2011 5:05 pm

    Interesting you mention Scandinavia, because in the world of law Scandinavian firms are just as bad as their UK peers. Figures we compiled for the European 100 (http://www.centaur2.co.uk/emags/thelawyer/tl_Euro100_2011/) show that there aren't many Scandinavian firms which have better female partner stats than the UK top 20 - Finland's Castren & Snellman has 27.6% female partners, but Borenius & Kemppinen has only 4% and there's a whole bunch of other Scandinavian/Nordic firms with less than 15% women in their partnership. Actually it's the Irish and the French who show best on the female partner front - although the largest proportion is still only 40% in the Euro 100.

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  • As a partner in 'poor Simmons' @5.19pm yesterday - don't quite recognise the backward step the commentator refers to - the new elected management are certainly better placed than their predecessors to appreciate the issues; and I don't see any loss of focus. Clearly the stats are disappointing; but personally I'm positive about the desire within the firm to continue to make improvements.

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  • @Anonymous | 12-Sep-2011 6:31 pm

    Anonymous recruitment may work for grads or low level associates, but I don't see how it can possibly work for internal partner decisions at law firms. Surely the candidates are generally well known enough by those making the decision that they would be able to tell whose CV it is, even without the name.

    At my company (non-law firm), we switched our grad recruitment to be name-blind 2 years ago. The number of women recruited has actually dropped (from an already pathetically low percentage) since the anonymous selection started.

    As I understand it, the problems for women lawyers don't come at the selection for TC stage (where anonymous recruitment is possible) but in terms of promotion/retention further down the line. This is as much about the decisions the women themselves make (e.g. not to attempt to become a partner) as it is about selection bias on the part of those making recruitment/promotion decisions.

    In short, there are no easy solutions.

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  • The issue is that so-called leadership qualities are those which come more naturally to males, although that is because males are judging what makes a good leader (based on their own skill-set). I would go as far to say that the skill-set required to be a competent lawyer comes more naturally to females. They say that behind every good man is a good woman. Well, the same is true in the legal profession. Men do better because they have an elevated sense of ability, and leave the detail and hard graft to the woman, delegate responsibility etc., whereas, for woman, the reverse is true. From my experience of supervising junior lawyers, females far outshine boys in every regard other than confidence. I am often frustrated by a young male lawyer's unwillingness to accept constructive feedback and making the same basic mistakes over and over again (making my job harder and fee estimates more difficult to make), but yet, have this unjustified confidence. Whereas, girls tend to excel, provide a far more efficient work product and yet are often very hard on themselves; their level of confidence does not reflect their actual level of competence. I am frustrated by the amount of mediocre male lawyers that I have come across that go on to make partnership on confidence alone and who overtake some outstanding female counterparts. Same goes for training contract interviews, I can count on one hand the number of males that perform well; whereas, the vast majority of girls are well prepared, articulate and personable. I acknowledge that I generalise and that there are outstanding male lawyers. However, my point is that a higher number of "mediocre males" seem to reach partnership when excellent females are stuck at Senior Associate level.

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  • Ms Bowles - remember how many women partners there were in Simmons when you were approaching partnership in the supposedly less-enlightened 1990s? Where did they all go to? And all those female corporate assistants? So where are they all now? And why is Simmons run now by those who were positioned (even then) as the inheritors of the firm?

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  • Anonymous @ 13-Sep-2011 4:03 pm, perhaps the skills you see in women lawyers are skills that hold you in good stead until you get to Senior Associate, are suffienct to be a very credible technical lawyer, but are not quite enough to make partner.

    As for young males being unwilling to learn, perhaps you need to unburden the chip and remember that they are half of the workforce, so perhaps you might get further if you learnt to manage them, too.

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  • Females have equal opportunities. The fact that there are less female partners is simply reflective of the fact that many females do not want to make the sacrifices required to meet client demands in a competitive market (i.e. working weekends and doing 100+ hour weeks when required). Firms need to provide round-the-clock service to compete, even more so with the rise of Asia. There are some things that are more important than work to many people (i.e. family life and health). The lower proportion of female partners is not a "failure" by anyone, but a result of a freedom of choice. If a female's aim in life is to become a partner, they already have the same opportunities as a male (if not better as many firms want to increase the proportion of female partners), but they need to make the same sacrifices.

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  • It is apparent that many people simply fail to grasp what equality means. When applied to the workplace, equality means people are treated equally and factors that are irrelevant to performance shall not be taken into account when assessing the potential and the basis of advancement of an individual in the workplace. Equality does not mean parity of gender representation throughout the ranks of an organisation. To my mind (and it is a male mind) if paternity rights were equal to maternity rights, then the career playing field (in respect of gender) would become far more level (there are other issues that also need to be dealt with, but positive discrimination is as far from equality as any other type of discrimination).

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  • I must disagree with the idea that females have entirely equal opportunities. Even if men were to share childcare equally (which amongst my colleagues and friends is extremely rare), it is the woman who must take a significant amount of time off to give birth to and feed a child. The mere fact that a 30-something woman may have to take time off to have children whereas a 30-something man is not renders them less attractive for promotion. This is exacerbated when the woman does take maternity leave, handing over files and losing contact with clients and prospective clients.

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  • I don't know why anyone would be surprised at these figures. It's still a boy's club out there. And by the way, 50% of the equity in my firm is female. And 50% of fee earners. It can be done. You've just got to want to do it. .

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