US firms shun lady laterals

Partnership election season is approaching and this year’s appointments will be scrutinised more closely than ever before. Over the past year, The Lawyer has broken a series of stories on associate issues, from retention rates to outright rebellions. Hence The Lawyer Career Report 2006 in this issue today.

If you’re an assistant reading it, you can check out your promotion chances firm by firm. If you’re a partner, you can research your chances of moving as a lateral hire.

And if you’re a woman, you can muse on why women tend to stay put. According to our research, women accounted for 26 per cent of all appointments last year. However, they are more likely to be promoted internally than hired laterally: women made up 30 per cent of promotions in 2005-06 but only 21 per cent of laterals. The Lawyer Career Report 2006 notes that 73 firms promoted women candidates last year, but only 39 laterally hired them into partnership.

There are reasons for this. First, women make their own choices. Most female solicitors tend to marry men of similar or higher economic status, which gives them more of a safety net than women in other industries if they want to stay at home with the children.

Second, there is a smaller pool of women partners who can be poached, and fewer women have historically worked in corporate and banking – key areas for lateral recruitment.

Nevertheless, the statistics show that a lateral hiring culture tends to benefit men, while a culture of internal promotions tends to benefit women. And this has a huge effect on two types of law firm in the UK: the smaller practices (particularly in the West End) and US firms in London. West End firms are proportionally the biggest lateral hirers in the country. They also have among the lowest percentage of female partners, and their female equity partners are virtually non-existent.

But at least the smaller commercial firms can plead that they don’t have the resources to boost new sectors through internal promotions. The US firms don’t have the same excuse. White & Case and, to a lesser extent, McDermott have implanted themselves better and, accordingly, top our table for promoting their associates to partnership.

But after years in London, most big US names are still intent on growing their City practices by laterals. And as we’ve established, there’s barely a woman among them, despite all that banging on about diversity. Explain that one away, guys.