Revealed: females make up less than 10 per cent of top 100’s equity partner ranks

Female partners remain a minority at top UK firms, with just 23.5 per cent of all partners and 9.4 per cent of all equity partners across the UK’s largest 100 law firms by revenue being female.


Among the magic circle, including Slaughter and May, female lawyers constituted 14.6 per cent of total partners and around 13.5 per cent of equity partners in the 2011-12 financial year, figures from this year’s The Lawyer UK 200 have revealed, with Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer having the lowest proportion of female partners at just 12 per cent.

“It’s tempting to say that this is because of a 24/7 culture or an ‘all boys’ network, but I think that’s quite superficial,” said King & Spalding partner Suzanne Rab, a former lawyer for both Freshfields and Slaughter and May. “I think it’s more to do with the fact that the legal profession is very slow to change – it changes slower than society. Change normally only happens if it makes business sense – why would a firm in a relatively good position want to change? It takes real courage to change something that may not be perceived to be broken.”

Outside the magic circle, the firms in the top 20 with the highest proportion of female partners are Berrymans Lace Mawer (38 per cent), Irwin Mitchell (30.9 per cent), Kennedys (38.2 per cent) and Shoosmiths (32.4 per cent). The proportions improve among firms ranked 50-100 by turnover, with Manches (45.6 per cent), Pannone (40.8 per cent), Russell Cooke (40 per cent) and Sackers (50 per cent) either edging towards or hitting a 50/50 gender split.

Despite these figures, the equity remains a male-dominated domain. At Taylor Wessing, for example, while 15.7 per cent of the total partnership is female, just 8 per cent of the equity partnership is. Similarly, 8 per cent of Simmons & Simmons’ equity partners are women while 14.2 per cent of its total partners are.

Caroline Rawes, director of human resources and development at Taylor Wessing, highlighted the recent recruitment of Alix Prentice in the firm’s financial institutions and markets group and Amanda Nelson in the private client team as examples of steps the firm is taking to try to redress this gender imbalance, but accepted that there was more to be done.

“We’re aware that female partner numbers for the firm are low and this is an area to which we’ve been committed to improving for some time,” she told The Lawyer.

The figures suggest it is traditional City firms that are finding it the hardest to retain senior female staff, with anecotal evidence suggesting that the masculine atmosphere at such firms can put some women off.

“I saw that women in senior positions had to adopt male attributes to get ahead,” said one former magic circle lawyer who has since left the City. “I didn’t want to change myself to stay.”

However, Avril Martindale, an IP partner and co-head of Freshfields’ London diversity leadership committee, said firms are taking steps to create an inclusive working enviornment.

“Creating an environment in which everyone can realise their full potential and feel that their work is valued is a business imperative for us,” she said. “Like many organisations, and law firms in particular, we still have plenty more to do. There’s still a disproportionate gap between the number of women we’re recruiting at trainee level and the number who make it into our partnership ranks.”

It is a similar picture at Clifford Chance. A spokesperson for the firm said: “Improving the gender balance of our partnership is an important goal for the firm – we have previously stated our ambition that women should make up at least 30 per cent of our partnership. Our priority is to secure a sustainable improvement while maintaining our strongly meritocratic culture.”

Alison Eddy
Alison Eddy

However, Alison Eddy, who became the first woman to hold a top regional position at Irwin Mitchell when she was made London managing partner earlier this year, said that setting targets for female representation is not necessarily the best way of dealing with gender imbalances within firms.

“In our view, [having a high number of female partners] is not about setting quotas,” she said. “It has to be about identifying the best people, regardless of gender or background, and giving them the opportunities to progress in our firm. More than half of the associates promoted to partner level in the past two years have been female but they weren’t promoted just because they were female. They were promoted based on their strong performance and contribution to the firm. For us, it’s not about who you are or where you’re from, it’s about what you can achieve and what you can bring to our business.”

Irwin Mitchell has recently been given ABS approval as it looks to implement ambitious growth plans. Eddy said the changes in the legal sector mean that there will be more female lawyers than male by 2015 and that firms need to adapt.

For the full data see this year’s The Lawyer UK 200

Bottom 30 firms in the UK 100 by proportion of female equity partners

Firm Turnover 2011-12 (£m) Total partners Total female equity partners Proportion female equity (%)
Ward Hadaway 30.00 69 0 0.0
Optima Legal 22.85 12 0 0.0
Howard Kennedy 27.80 57 1 1.8
Foot Anstey 22.88 48 1 2.1
Gateley 61.50 143 3 2.1
Speechly Bircham 57.60 91 2 2.2
Weightmans 77.10 151.1 3.6 2.4
TLT 44.50 68 2 2.9
Field Fisher Waterhouse 97.60 146.9 4.38 3.0
DWF 102.00 152 5 3.3
Holman Fenwick Willan 123.90 127 5 3.9
Trowers & Hamlins * 80.80 121 5 4.1
Fladgate 25.90 48 2 4.2
Farrer & Co 49.60 71.8 3 4.2
Freeth Cartwright 36.73 91 4 4.4
Hill Dickinson 110.10 172 8 4.7
Bond Pearce 46.50 72.21 3.36 4.7
Clyde & Co 287.00 230 11 4.8
Parabis Law 108.00 61 3 4.9
Simmons & Simmons 251.70 203 10 4.9
Berwin Leighton Paisner 246.00 209.2 10.4 5.0
Taylor Wessing 212.50 311 15.5 5.0
Hugh James 28.50 40 2 5.0
Winckworth Sherwood 23.90 40 2 5.0
Pinsent Masons 220.50 256 13 5.1
Ince & Co 91.60 97 5 5.2
Herbert Smith 480.00 270 14 5.2
Bird & Bird ** 235.00 230 12 5.2
Macfarlanes 102.20 70.6 3.7 5.2
Russell Jones & Walker 45.00 52 3 5.8

* Trowers & Hamlins have 35 female partners, 29.2% of the total.

** Bird & Bird have 53 female partners, 23% of the total.