Career Report 2007: The only way is up

It is slow work, but more women than ever before are starting to infiltrate the partner ranks of magic circle firms. It is, however, from a very low base. According to The Lawyer Career Report 2007, published today (26 March), only 14.6 per cent of magic circle partners are female. The percentage of female equity partners is even lower at just over 11 per cent – putting Allen & Overy (A&O), Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Linklaters firmly in the bottom third when it comes to female partners in The Lawyer’s UK 100 list.

But there are glimmers of hope for the big four firms, all of which have made tackling female retention a priority. Over the last three years they have collectively promoted 298 associates to partner. Of those associates, 58, or 19.5 per cent, have been women.

Clifford Chance has promoted 21 women in the last three years out of a total 88, or 24 per cent. But if you join Clifford Chance in London as a female trainee, what is the likelihood of making partner? It is patchy. London certainly does the best of any jurisdiction. Out of the seven London women made up in that time, it is understood that only one trained at the firm.

The best prospects for female promotion in London are in real estate, which has promoted three women in the last three years: Jane Cheong Tung Sing, Rebecca Ford and Sarah Thomas. Indeed, all of the London real estate promotions in the last three years have been female, but only one – Cheong Tung Sing – trained at the firm; both Ford and Thomas joined Clifford Chance a couple of years after qualification. The only male to make partner in real estate in the last three years is Mark Payne, a lateral hire from Linklaters.

By contrast, Clifford Chance’s core groups of finance and corporate in London have not promoted nearly so many women. Banking has made one female promotion in three years – Emma Folds last year, in leveraged finance – compared with five men. However, London banking head Mark Stewart points out that the practice has six female partners out of a total 24, exactly 25 per cent, plus two female lawyers attached to the group who have partner status with flexible working arrangements.

Female corporate associates have fewer role models. Corporate in London has not made up a female partner for three years. The only woman to make the cut in a related group was Sonya Branch in competition in 2006, although statistics show that the firm has promoted five men in corporate in that time, including Ian Bagshaw, who subsequently left for Linklaters.

Even worse for female prospects at Clifford Chance is London capital markets. It has not had a female promotion in three years, although it has promoted three males in that time.

(The corporate and capital markets departments did not return calls for comment on their female promotion records.)

Linklaters’ has promoted 20 women out of 95 in the last three years, or 21 per cent, and it has pretty impressive form on retention. Only two of the 12 women in London to make partner did not train at the firm (although three others originally trained in Australia and New Zealand before beginning their UK legal careers at Linklaters as junior lawyers). “A large majority of our London promoted partners are homegrown anyway,” observes corporate partner Olivia McKendrick, who made partner in 2004.

Linklaters HR director Jill King says: “Our mentoring schemes are available to everybody – they’re not genderspecific. But a lot of our senior female partners have been very good at offering their wisdom around these issues to associates.”

Making the cut in 2006 were Nicole Kar in competition and Annette Kurdian and Olga Petrovic in banking. In 2005 four women in the UK were promoted out of a class of 32 worldwide, following on from five UK female promotions out of a global 31 in 2004.

Women in offices outside London do not enjoy the same consistency in promotion prospects. There have been only seven female appointments outside London in three years, and they were in New York, Bangkok, Stockholm, Paris, Munich and two in Tokyo.

The female London promotions tend to mirror the firm’s core areas, which bodes well for junior female lawyers joining the major departments. Twenty per cent of the promotions in London corporate over the last three years have been women. In 2006 there were two, Kurdian and Petrovic in London banking, and Kar in competition. In 2005 there was one in corporate, one in capital markets, one in projects (despite the reshaping of the practice, which resulted in a number of departures) and one in financial markets. In 2004 five women in London were made partners across a range of practice areas: one in corporate, one in banking, one in projects and two in the technology, media and telecoms (TMT) and IP group.

Female partnership prospects are strong in finance, which accounts for 11 out of the 20 female promotions in three years, including five in banking and three in capital markets, which is considerably better than at A&O or Clifford Chance. In 2006 Linklaters even appointed a female banking lateral – a very rare breed – Cécile Dupoux in Paris from Sonier Poulain.

Historically fruitful for female solicitors at Linklaters is the broad practice area related to TMT and IP (including media finance), which accounts for five, or 25 per cent, of the firm’s entire female promotions in three years. A warning: this trend has tailed off in London, where there have been no partner promotions at all since Marly Didizian and Isabel Teare in 2004, underlining Linklaters’ shift away from the area. But worldwide all the partners made up in this area in the last three years have been women, prompting the obvious question as to whether it is a more female discipline.

“We do have a good number of ladies in IP, as we do in litigation,” says commercial head Christopher Style. “But the struggle to become a more balanced organisation is such a tough one.”

Freshfields’ record on female partner promotions is weak. In the last three years seven women have been made up out of 48, or 14.6 per cent. In 2006 11 associates got the nod, and not one was a woman. The previous year four women were promoted out of 21. Three of them – Ali Sallaway (litigation), Caroline Stroud (employment/ benefits) and Helen Lethaby (tax) – were in London and formed the majority of the five London promotions that year, although the men were in Freshfields’ mainstream transactional groups of corporate and finance. Generally, female associates have the best chance of making partner if they are in satellite areas around the core departments. (Indeed, there has not been a female corporate partner promoted since 2003.)

In 2004 Freshfields made up 16 partners worldwide, of whom three were women and only one was in London – employment partner Kathleen Healy. Of the four female London promotions since 2004, only one, Lethaby, trained with Freshfields.

According to Freshfields partner Hugh Crisp, female retention is top of the agenda. “We have a number of flexible homeworking schemes already – we’re looking at coaching more assistants around maternity, helping them keep in touch better when they’re away.”

A&O has the highest number of female equity partners in the magic circle, but has not substantially added to its total recently. It has made up 10 women in three years out of 67, or 14.9 per cent. It promoted 21 in 2004, but only one woman; it made up 14 in 2005, and three were women. In 2006 it made up a record 33 associates. Six were women, and four of those were in London – Jennifer Marshall and Melissa Samuel (banking), Debbie Harris (corporate) and Vanessa Hardman (capital markets).

The majority of women A&O has promoted have tended to train at the firm, although, as with Linklaters, there is a strong streak of Australianborn solicitors who have subsequently requalified. You do the maths. The magic circle is slowly improving its female partner numbers, but only in certain departments.

They may have a job persuading their female trainees that partnership at the firm they joined is a realistic ambition.

See full report: The Career Report 2007 – They want to keep you