Initiatives for a female future

Increasing the number of women reaching and staying at partner level is on the agenda

. Although the new Parliament has an unprecedented number of female members, including several from the legal profession, the recent announcement of this year's crop of partners shows that the legal profession still seems to be lagging behind in the equality stakes.

A female partner of a Big Five firm recently told a conference for women lawyers that, with the most recent intake of partners at her practice, females now make up only about 10 per cent of the total number of partners. Little surprise was expressed about this statistic by the female lawyers at the event. The table (right) showing the number of female partners made up in 1996 and 1997 in the 20 largest firms confirms her statistic.

But lower down the Top 100, there are more encouraging figures. Although Richards Butler did not make up any female partners this year, five out of 12 women solicitors were made up to partner last year; and at SJ Berwin & Co in 1996, two out of three new partners were women, with three out of the 10 new partners this year. And at the newly-merged Berrymans Lace Mawer, three out of the nine new partners this year were female.

Special mention should go to Charles Russell, where out of the seven new partners this year, six were women. Also notable is one of the few firms to have a female managing partner, Pannone & Partners, where four of the six new partners this year were women.

Overall about 15 per cent of all partners are women – a figure which seems all the more surprising given that 54 per cent of all lawyers under 30 are women, and 45 per cent of all solicitors between 30 and 40 are female, the age range when most solicitors make partner.

The increased mobility of lawyers at all levels may partly explain the lack of women partners at the top end of the Top 100. But there is also a growing acceptance of the fact that 'presenteeism' is no longer the only way of working until retirement; it seems that the days of all assistant solicitors aiming for 'partnership or nothing' by the age of 30 are numbered.

Recent initiatives, such as the flexible working policy for male and female partners introduced by City firm Linklaters & Paines, have been greeted with some scepticism. As one senior person at a top 20 firm comments: “We have no part-time male partners here.”

But statistics cannot be ignored – with more women coming into the profession than men, firms that do not introduce such schemes face the loss of high-quality senior lawyers.

Initiatives such as Linklaters' can also be used to gain a competitive advantage in the recruitment market, with disgruntled women lawyers heading for the enlightened firms. At present, many firms are watching and waiting. As Freshfields partner Harriet Creamer says: “If it works, it will be seen as a very very far-sighted scheme.”