Fair way

Is the ABS system more likely to redress gender imbalance than quotas?

gender female
gender female

Despite efforts by firms to help women break through the glass ceiling little progress has been made in the gender equalisation of law firm boards. Perhaps it is the historic nature of partnerships and their voting systems that hinders progress.

At Russell Jones & Walker (RJW), now part of Australian-listed firm Slater & Gordon, the traditional model is being reshaped, with a new structure that brings women and non-lawyers to the fore. The aim is to make the most of the management skills that are available and let the lawyers get on with lawyering.

The firm’s six-strong senior management team, responsible for strategy, operations and top-line management, is made of up four women and two men. This includes chief commercial officer Caoilionn Hurley, who joined the firm less than a year ago from Gray’s Inn set South Square, and general counsel Rebecca Bell.

They are joined by HR head Christine Heyting, who has moved to London from Australia to help drive integration, and chief operating officer Cath Evans, also seconded from Australia.

Evans, however, is the only woman to have a seat on the six-strong UK-Australia board. Joining her from legacy RJW is chief executive Neil Kinsella and UK LLP member (note – that’s not partner, but an LLP member) John Sturzaker, go-to adviser for the firm’s biggest client, the Police Federation.

While the firm is enabling women to move upwards on a national scale, there is still some work to be done internationally.

Compare the move with Linklaters, which has unveiled plans aimed at attracting and retaining female talent, or Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, which is considering introducing targets for the number of female candidates put forward for partnership promotion.

Quotas are fine in theory, but the truth is that there are many reasons why women do not come forward for senior positions, among them the fact that nobody wants to be seen as a ‘token female’.

The flexible ABS model is likely to help, as non-lawyer management takes centre stage.