From boasting an enviable proportion of female partners to currently having one of the worst showings in the City, Simmons is trying to tackle the problem head-on
Statistics matter. At the beginning of the year Simmons & Simmons senior partner David Dickinson and managing partner Mark Dawkins decided to take action. They mandated all 10 practice group heads to not just examine the male-female split in all divisions, but to also to come up with specific and localised plans to deal with any imbalance.
“They were completely frustrated,” reveals one source close to the process.
For despite its pioneering thought leadership on inclusivity, and despite having had the City’s first female senior partner in Janet Gaymer, Simmons currently has one of the worst records in terms of female partnership of any of the top 10 City firms. Its tally of female partners now stands at 12 per cent, with equity partner representation even lower – women make up 8 per cent of the equity partnership.
What went so wrong at Simmons?
Dickinson agrees that Simmons simply did not consolidate its early position on the gender issue.
“I think we may have taken our eye off the ball,” he admits. “I’d say we were in a leading position 10 years ago and the reality is that we’ve found ourselves slipping back.”
You can say that again. For the past two years Simmons has not made a single internal female partner promotion. It made up a bumper crop of five in 2008, but that was part of its record overall promotion round of 18: Caroline Hunter-Yeats (financial disputes, London); Daniela Sabelli (corporate, Italy); Natalie Boyd (capital markets, Dubai); Isabella Roberts (corporate, Abu Dhabi); and Samidha Malhotra (capital markets, London). Prior to that there had been a two-year female promotion gap, with two in 2006 consisting of Laurence Renard (employment, Paris) and Victoria Lloyd (corporate, London) (although the latter is no longer with the firm.
In fact, 2008 was a high watermark for women partners at Simmons. That year the figure reached 14 per cent, but has since hovered at around 12 per cent.
Neither is there any indication that Simmons’ female partners are beginning to swell the equity ranks. For the past five years the figure has hovered consistently between 7 and 8 per cent.
It may be that the number of female laterals in the past few years made the management complacent. While the firm has promoted just seven women in five years, it has laterally hired 12 into the partnership, although three – Jennifer Donohue, Jacqui O’Keefe, and Rachel Francis-Edwards – have subsequently left (see Partnership Moves box).
This mirrors what has happened at Taylor Wessing, one of the worst performers in the top 30, with just 8 per cent of the partnership being female and a mere 5 per cent holding full equity. The firm has not made up a female partner since 2008, but made four female lateral hires in the past year.
In both firms’ cases, this success at recruiting women externally has allowed the internal promotion problem to fester.
One of the reasons women partners have arrived at Simmons is that the firm looked outside its normal pool. At the height of the boom it cannily offered partnership to a series of senior associates from magic circle firms who were finding their path to partnership blocked. Yet the fact remains that there have been few homegrown female partners in London – just three in five years.
The wonder is that it took so long for the firm’s senior management to be shocked into action. The bare facts of female participation have certainly had an internal effect. “I did a
double-take when the statistics were put in front of me,” says projects group head Juliet Reingold. Employment partner Julian Taylor, who sits on the firm’s diversity committee, is also candid about Simmons’ poor showing.
“[The management initiative] stems from realising that our stats weren’t great, but also a lot worse than a lot of our peer firms’,” says Taylor. “We’ve stopped gender being a diversity issue and moved it to being a core business issue. We recognise we’ve got a lot to do in this area and that the statistics aren’t good.”
“My view,” adds Dickinson, “is that we have to step back much further and have a more direct discussion earlier [with junior lawyers]. That’s why we’re working on a plan that will lead to a rapid improvement in managing careers.”
To this end, one of the key elements of the gender rebalancing exercise – and to deal with the difficulty Simmons has had in promoting women internally – is to ensure there is a strong pipeline of female associates. The firm has begun an internal buddy scheme for expectant mothers, is putting partners through training on unconscious bias and is opening up the debate on appropriate and gender-neutral client and internal entertainment. “At a practical level, you don’t have to assume that marketing events have to take place at 7pm in a bar and then go on to a club,” says Reingold.
“There’s a lot of work being done on succession planning,” elaborates Taylor. “Partners are committing to identifying female stars within the group and ensuring they progress through the ranks.”
Reingold agrees. “We have a managing associate grade now,” she notes. “And in the round we had this year we got three through in our group, and all three were women. From a medium-term perspective that’s important, because if you don’t make managing associate you won’t make partner.”
There is also the issue of role models. With Gaymer no longer at the firm, there are virtually no senior women in management.
This is not for want of trying on the part of Dickinson and Dawkins. Financial services star Sarah Bowles stepped down from leading the group last year prior to sabbatical and is currently preferring to focus on client work. One source close to Simmons says this was a blow.
“David [Dickinson] tried to convince her to go on the board,” the source reveals. “He’d have liked to have been interventionist and get female representation on a senior level.”
Bowles says she does not rule out future management roles, but her priority is to focus on clients after several months away. “If there’s management opportunities that come up I’d be interested in doing them, but not at this stage of my career,” she says.
To be fair, Simmons is by no means the only firm to struggle to persuade female partners to put their heads above the management parapet. For example, the difficulty of enticing women into management roles is something that is periodically discussed at Clifford Chance, where the current proportion stands at 14 per cent.
“The problem is that the big-hitting female partners want to carry on fee-earning,” claims a Clifford Chance insider. “It’s what they know best and they don’t want to jeopardise anything by being taken away from client work.”
It is a similar story at Herbert Smith. Like Simmons it has invested considerable energy in diversity and inclusivity.
Also like Simmons, Herbert Smith has a track record of successful women who came to prominence in the late 1980s and 1990s, such as corporate partners Margaret Mountford, Marian Pell and Caroline Goodall. The head of the firm’s powerful litigation department is a woman, Sonya Leydecker.
The role models are certainly there, although one former Herbert Smith source notes that the 1990s role models did not see themselves as standard-bearers for their gender. Yet Herbert Smith’s statistics are almost as surprising as Simmons’. Some 15 per cent of Herbert Smith’s total partnership is female, but women make up only 10 per cent of its equity. This is a slightly better performance than Simmons’, but nevertheless leaves it trailing behind the rest of the City top 10.
“One of the big differences between us and some of the other firms is how much we’ve grown over the past 10 years,” argues Carolyn Lee, diversity and inclusivity head at Herbert Smith. “We’ve done that mainly through lateral hires, so if you look at the laterals in the past few years, of 20, 18 are men. In terms of our internal promotions we have quite a good story to tell.”
In other words, Herbert Smith has done slightly better than Simmons at promoting its own women, but has a less obviously attractive culture to sell to women outside the firm. And furthermore, the difference in the proportion of women as partners and as equity partners is not marked: equity partnership is still a boys’ club. In both firms, and indeed, for all the top 10 City firms, progression to equity is a problem.
Lee at Herbert Smith offers an explanation. “One of the reasons it can take longer is that it’s not unusual for women to get promoted and go on maternity leave,” she says. “A lot of women wait until they reach partner until they have children. I think that can sometimes slow the process down.”
Gender rebalancing, then, is a slow process. The buy-in is there, but Simmons’ initiative will not bear immediate fruit. “Cultural change is part of the whole process,” says Reingold. “Everyone recognises it’s an issue. We want to create a better platform for women to stay long term. There are no short cuts.”
ROLE MODEL – Sarah Bowles
Joined the firm at five years’ PQE in 1994 in Hong Kong and made partner in 1998. Has two children aged 12 and 13. A regulatory and financial services specialist with a strong hedge fund client base, Bowles headed the financial services group from May 2007 until August 2009.
ROLE MODEL – Juliet Reingold
Qualified at Simmons in 1992 and made partner in 1998. Has two children aged 13 and nine. Currently head of the projects group. Clients have included Network Rail, Transport for London and the Ministry of Defence on a string of big-ticket PPPs.
ROLE MODEL – Julian Taylor
Qualifed as a barrister in 1994 and joined Simmons & Simmons in 1999. Requalifed as a solicitor and
made partner in 2003. Head of Simmons’ employment law training unit. Works reduced hours in order to help care for three small children.
Top 10 city firms’ female partnerships
Females as per cent of partnership
Slaughter and May 1 9
Hogan Lovells 18
Norton Rose 17
Allen & Overy 15
Herbert Smith 15
Clifford Chance 14
Simmons & Simmons 12
Females as per cent
of equity partnership
Slaughter and May 19
Hogan Lovells 17
Norton Rose 15
Allen & Overy 13
Clifford Chance 11
Herbert Smith 10
Simmons & Simmons 8
Female partner moves at Simmons
2006: Laurence Renard (employment, Paris); Victoria Lloyd (corporate)
2008: Caroline Hunter-Yeats (financial disputes, London); Daniela Sabelli (corporate, Italy); Natalie Boyd (capital markets, Dubai); Isabella Roberts (corporate, Abu Dhabi); Samidha Malhotra (capital markets, London)
Lateral partner hires
2006: Charlotte Stalin (from Clifford Chance, projects); Jacqui O’Keefe (Denton Wilde Sapte, environment); Louise Delahunty (Peters & Peters, litigation)
2007: Florence Guthfreund-Roland (Morgan Lewis, information, communications and technology); Daphne Brinkhuis (Houthoff Buruma, banking); Jennifer Donohue (Hogan & Hartson, financial institutions)
2008: Alyson Lockett (Allen & Overy, banking); Sau-Wing Mak (Wachovia, financial markets); Vanessa Abernathy (Clyde & Co, corporate); Sonia de Kondserovsky (Jones Day, corporate);
Rachel Francis-Lang (Eversheds, real estate)
2010: Marjan Noor (Howrey, IP)