The criticism? It encourages discrimination against men.
It seems the firm will not be doing anything so discriminatory. If the plans under discussion go through, it will merely be setting a target, not fixing a quota. And the targets are only for candidate numbers, not the number of successful applicants.
It has not confirmed what the target will be, but one commenter sensibly suggested 50 per cent as the only way the annual promotions slate can effectively mirror society.
Semantics over targets and quotas aside, the firm has plenty to do to redress its gender imbalance. The proportion of newly promoted partners who are women has dwindled over the past five years, with 15 per cent of this year’s successful applicants being female.
Things were better for female associates with partnership hopes in 2008, when five of the firm’s 25 new partners were women. 2008 also saw the highest raw number of female promotions for the firm in the past five years. The percentage saw a slight hike in 2009 (21 per cent female) despite a drop in overall promotions from 25 to 14. It reached 22 per cent in 2010, the high point of the past five years, but 2011 and 2012 saw much lower levels, at 10 and 15 per cent respectively.
By contrast, five of Clifford Chance’s 27 newly promoted partners this year were women (19 per cent of total). Linklaters promoted six women out of 23 (26 per cent), making it top for female magic circle partner promotions.
Slaughter and May did not make up any females this year, although it only promoted two men.
Firms do not reveal the identities of candidates who do not ultimately get promoted, so it will not necessarily be clear whether Freshfields ever hits its mooted target, whatever the target will be.
But the proof will be in the final result: if it can overtake rival Linklaters for female partnership promotions within a few years, we will know the ploy has worked.