Revealed: top UK firms make poor showing in female partner stakes

The extent of the gender disparity in the partnerships of the UK’s largest law firms has been much reported in the pages of The Lawyer.

One of the major themes to date has been the fact that the number of women lawyers almost appears to drop off a cliff from entry level, where they dominate, to partnership level, where they are a distinct minority. However, new research published here shows that women are not only much less numerous in senior positions, but that their careers are shorter than those of their male counterparts.

On average, women make partner one year earlier than men at 38.9 years old, but they also tend to resign from their respective partnerships 2.3 years before the males, meaning they spend on average 5.9 years at the same firm compared with 8.2 years for men. They also leave at a younger age on average. Most women have left their original firm by the time they are 44, while for men the age is 48.

“That’s a massive loss for the firms they quit,” says Derek Klyhn at the Møller Professional Service Firms Group Cambridge, which researched the 44 firms in The Lawyer’s top 50 that are LLPs in order to collate data on the demographics of their partnerships. “Every partner that leaves is a loss of knowledge and relationships. ­Anything firms can do to extend the [work] life of partners by one or two years would be good.”

It also has an impact on the fee-earning capability of the departing partners when they arrive at their new firms, as it takes some time for them to build up to peak performance.

“During the recession it became clear that law firms are judging partners more than ever on their fee-earning performance,” explains Mark Brandon, managing director at Motive Legal Consulting. “Given that, it could be the case that women partners are facing a career ’double-whammy’ – outnumbered by men and with fewer fee-earning years as partners. If this is indeed true, it’s something that law firms need to address pretty urgently.”

Most management teams appear cognisant of this fact and are taking steps to address it. Allen & Overy, for example, where 18 per cent of the partnership is female (roughly in line with the average at City firms, but below the national average), has introduced a highly structured part-time working scheme for equity partners designed to reduce female attrition (The, 21 January). Partners are able to work a minimum four-day week, or to take up to a maximum of 52 days extra leave a year. Those who choose to go part-time have their equity points allocation capped at 30 points (the equivalent of progressing five years on the normal equity track) and receive their profit shares pro rata. The scheme was introduced on 1 May, so it is too early to ascertain its impact.

But Klyhn does not think there will be a dramatic shift in female partners’ career paths any time soon.

“With anything like gender, what you’re talking about is an existing population and it takes a generation for it to feed through and change,” he comments.

Nevertheless, the profile of the legal profession is arguably better than those of other professional services industries. Klyhn says that of the 46 top 50 accountancy firms that disclose gender data, women make up 13.1 per cent of partners compared with 18.6 per cent in the law firm sample.

The study also exposes the full impact of recent extensive law firm restructurings on total partner numbers. Clifford Chance had the greatest ’churn’. The firm lost 99 partners during 2009 and appointed 20 during the same period. Hill Dickinson was the only top 50 firm where not a single partner resigned.

The research also looked at other social indicators. The average law firm ­partner was 46 years old on 31 May 2010, meaning they were born in 1963 or 1964. Jonathan Bond, director of HR and learning at Pinsent Masons, which has a partnership at the slightly younger end of the ­spectrum, with an average age of 44, says his firm has “a comparatively good route to partnership for bright people”. He is keen to point out, however, that this does not reflect any ageism. “There’s no [attempt] to move people on at any particular age. The spirit of [age discrimination] legislation is against perceived or real age discrimination,” he affirms.

Perhaps the survey’s most curious finding was to do with partners’ names. LLP members tend to have names common to the A/B social classes – biblical names such as David, Sarah, Andrew and Catherine. The trend towards conformity is emphasised by the fact that the top 10 male names account for 30.1 per cent of male partners, a dynamic less pronounced among women, where the top 10 names represent 18.8 per cent of the female partners. Klyhn doubts there is “unconscious filtering” among appointments committees, saying: “It’s more a case of who puts themselves forward to be a lawyer.

“And,” he admits, “there were probably fewer Britneys back in the 1960s than there are now.”