Pinsent Masons has unveiled plans to boost gender diversity across the firm by targeting a 30 per cent female partnership, setting an interim goal of 25 per cent within the next four years.
Employment partner Linda Jones is leading the ‘project sky’ initiative aimed at boosting access to flexible working, altering parental leave arrangements and organising gender training in a bid to increase female partner numbers.
Jones said: “Currently more than 20 per cent of the Pinsent Masons partnership is female while two out of the nine people on our board are women, benchmarking well against comparable firms in the professional services sector.
“However, around 70 per cent of the lawyers coming into the business are female while the proportion of women in partnership is fairly static. If we are to properly utilise that talent changes are required.”
Jones sits on the partnership appointment and remuneration committee and put herself forward for organising the scheme. “I had observed that we were taking on a lot of women in employment and not many were becoming partners,” she said.
“We had done one-off projects but nothing comprehesive, then we put together a small steering group which started off as five and is now up to 13 people.”
In order to identify the firm’s problem areas the firm conducted one-on-one interviews with 70 senior partners and several focus groups. It has now started training programmes focused on “more honest conversations” around career progression and has consulted with partners and consultancy Female Breadwinners, a group specialising in gender issues.
“Our issues were not that different to any other law firm,” Jones said. “We have a slight culture of presenteeism and a bit of a focus on inputs rather than outputs. For women with childcare that has been a bit of a problem, though there are a lot of men in the business who aren’t keen on the long hours either.”
The firm has put in place a plan aimed at altering attitudes to flexible working and parental leave.
“At the moment we’ve got a flexible working policy,” she said. ”Our HR people have looked at this and said we’ve probably got more lawyers working flexibly than others but the perception is that it is just something for working mums or people coming back from maternity leave.”
She continued: People think that by asking for agile working it is a death knell to your career.”
The firm has also asked all practice groups to consider whether its shortlists for promotions to legal director and senior associate positions are representative of the gender balance of their teams.
Jones acknowledged that the firm has a way to go. In 2012 Pinsent Masons was listed by The Lawyer as being in the bottom 30 firms in the UK 100 by proportion of female equity partners.
In launching the target Pinsent Masons is in good company. In 2013 Baker & McKenzie launched a plan to double female partner numbers (26 April 2013), aiming to double its female partner figure from 15 per cent to 30 per cent.
However getting women into partnerships remains a stubborn problem for law firms, which have struggled to push the number above 20 per cent. In 2013, 17.6 per cent of all partners in the UK legal market were woman and just 13 per cent of equity partners at UK top 20 firms were women (2 September 2013).
The top 100 UK firms show a very similar picture. According to The Lawyer UK 200, female lawyers in the magic circle constituted 14.6 per cent of total partners, though they counted for around 13.5 per cent of equity partners in the 2011/12 financial year (24 October 2012).
In the UK’s largest firms by revenue, just 9.4 per cent of all equity partners were female in 2012, with Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer having the lowest proportion of female partners at just 12 per cent.
The issue is high on the agenda for firms. Last year The Lawyer predicated that women would still represent less than 20 per cent of partners in the UK Top 20 law firms by 2018 and that there would be no female global managing partners or CEOs.
Despite that, firms seem to see the way ahead as target-led, with quotas shunned by many. One Linklaters partner did speak out for quotas last year – Nicola Rabson described the method of positively discriminating to push up the number of women in top role as “the only way things will change” (1 April 2013).