Plafond de verre

The glass ceiling is still in place in the French legal profession as, although there are far more young women than men involved, they are not making partner

In brief

Hundreds more women are joining the legal profession in Paris than men but, particularly in commercial law firms, men still hold the balance of power. Efforts to change this are slow but determined, with the representative body spearheading the fight.

Diversity in the legal profession is something firms all over the world are grappling with, but in France efforts to promote the role of women have been stepped up this year – and not before time.

Earlier in the year the Barreau de Paris, or Paris Bar Association, issued a study commissioned for International Women’s Day. This showed the number of women entering the profession in Paris has outstripped the number of men but, at the top end, breaking through the plafond de verre remains extremely tough.

This is particularly notable in management. Only three women hold managing partner positions in large commercial firms in Paris. Emmanuelle Barbara has been managing partner at August & Debouzy since 2001. Loraine Donnedieu de Vabres-Tranié is one of a trio of managing partners at Jeantet Associés and Frédérique Dupuis-Toubol heads up Bird & Bird’s Paris office.

Of the largest independent French firms employment specialist Fromont Briens tops the female partnership rankings, with 15 women among the 29 partners. August & Debouzy and Fidal are next, as women represented 29.7 per cent of both firms’ partnerships at the end of the 2011 year according to The Lawyer’s European 100 rankings.

Other French firms have varying proportions of female partners, down to 9.6 per cent at Gide Loyrette Nouel and just 8.7 per cent at Darrois Villey Maillot Brochier.

Barbara says gender is not an issue at August & Debouzy.

“As far as my firm is concerned this has never been an issue whatsoever – it’s never been taken into account for any promotion,” she comments.

Barbara adds that she was appointed partner when eight months pregnant, although says that this was admittedly at a time when the firm was smaller than it is today.

Retaining wall

Barbara says there would have been more female partners, but notes that retaining women is not always easy.

The bâtonnier, or chair, of the Paris Bar, Christiane Féral-Schuhl, agrees that retention is one of the things preventing women reaching the top.

“One in 10 leave the profession between 30 and 40 – that’s a lot,” she says.

It is Féral-Schuhl who has spearheaded the bar’s efforts this year to put gender diversity at the top of the agenda. She is only the second female bâtonnier in the history of the Paris bar, and believes that discussing the issue will encourage firms to improve their practices.

She says producing the study and highlighting areas where improvement is needed, in conjunction with a day’s conference in March to talk about the issues, was a good start.

“For young women it was important to get out of their isolation,” she notes.

Donnedieu de Vabres-Tranié points out that Féral-Schuhl’s work is not the first attempt by the bar to do something about the inequalities in the system, but agrees the issue should be discussed.

“Beyond the declared willingness to make the situation evolve some specific actions have now to be undertaken and there’s no doubt that eventually the goal to reach equality between male and female avocats will be reached,” she says. “Since the bar is anyway mostly made up of young and female members this issue can’t be anything but significant, and it’s obviously good that it’s being promoted.”

Passing the bâtonnier

De Pardieu Brocas Maffei partner Barbara Levy says the turning point in France regarding the perception of women in the law was the election of Dominique de la Garanderie as bâtonnier in 1997.

De la Garanderie was at the time a name partner at the firm now known as Veil Jourde. Levy says her election campaign was greeted with scepticism by men at the Paris bar, but her election marked a change in attitude.

“Honestly, this was quite a revolution,” Levy says. “When she was elected it was extraordinary. It was an important change in mentality for all French lawyers,”

Having women in prominent positions in the legal community is a good way to promote the issue, believe lawyers. Féral-Schuhl herself cites the example of Christine Lagarde, the first female chair of Baker & McKenzie and now managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

But firms agree it is up to them to help their women progress.

“In Jeantet, despite the examples of some female partners who reconcile their private and professional lives and thus set an example the situation’s still difficult for female associates, depending on the team,” says Donnedieu de Vabres-Tranié. “In some teams partners have a positive and incentivising way of speaking and behaving, and follow the career path of their female associates. But such examples are too few and we need policies for the identification of talent and career-building.”

Barbara says August & Debouzy does not practise positive discrimination, instead looking to hire or promote the best people. However, like Donnedieu de Vabres-Tranié, she thinks leading by example helps.

“I’ve not sacrificed my own life, I have three children,” she says of her career. “It’s a psychological issue and an organisational one.”

Levy adds: “The first thing to do is to show women that it’s possible to be a partner and have a private and family life.”

Dupuis-Toubol thinks individuals’ attitude helps, both on the part of the lawyers and the firm. She says she would never have considered becoming managing partner if Bird & Bird’s chief executive David Kerr had not suggested it and adds that, particularly in France, law firm management is dominated too much by men.

Male order

Franklin partner Mark Richardson says at partner level, both in law and more generally, France remains a male-dominated society.

“It’s a tougher business for women in Paris as our market is on the whole more misogynist than other places,” Richardson says. “It’s all well and good to talk about our profession as if it’s in a vacuum, but it’s not.”

He points out that many boards in France – and indeed elsewhere in Europe – are still made up of a majority of men and many of them are more used to instructing men than women.

“That’s changing, but for the moment it makes things difficult for a female lawyer wanting to develop a practice,” he says. “It’s a generational thing. I get the feeling it’s slower in France than in other places.”

France recently passed a law mandating that 40 per cent of every board of directors should be female, which Levy thinks will help produce a shift in attitude among clients.

“It’s a momentum in society, this isn’t just in law firms – women are more and more important,” she says. “We more frequently have women as clients,” she says, adding that clients are increasingly looking for their advisers to have diversity policies in place.

There has certainly been a shift among the younger generations. The numbers are striking: since at least 2005 the number of women entering the profession in Paris is 85 per cent higher than the number of men. Women are also, on average, a couple of years younger when they join the Paris bar than men.

“One of the reasons is that it’s a profession. It does provide to a certain degree a level of flexibility to people in managing their professional and personal life balance,” says Richardson, who adds that in larger firms at least there tends to be a reasonably rigid pay scale offering parity to associates at the same level of experience.

Donnedieu de Vabres-Tranié adds that women are also a majority on university law courses and thinks that law is an attractive profession for women.

“If law studies don’t constitute a springboard allowing to access to position of power, they nevertheless provide access to positions with responsibilities,” she says.

Forward thinking

The demographics place the onus on firms to improve retention and career development for women, says Dupuis-Toubol.

“If you have parity at the level of those entering the profession you should have parity at all levels,” she points out.

Ensuring a sensible work-life balance is seen by many as being a key thing to get right, both for men and women. Technology such as smartphones and video-conferencing is a definite help.

“Nothing is revolutionary, but it’s a way of managing how important it is and how it’s possible to change the way of working,” says Féral-Schuhl. “I really believe this is the most important thing for women. I’m convinced of that.”

The Paris bar is planning to continue its efforts on behalf of its female members. In July Féral-Schuhl signed a ‘pact of equality’, an initiative set up by the Laboratoire de l’Egalité, an organisation dedicated to improving professional equality in France.

Ultimately, however, it is up to firms to make a difference.

“Generation after generation things are changing,” says Dupuis-Toubol, but it will only be when this generation of female associates reach partnership that her belief will be proved.

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