BLP tells headhunters: find female talent to help us hit our diversity target

Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) has become the latest firm to aim for an improvement in the number of women making partner.

The firm’s announcement yesterday (27 October 2014) of a 30 per cent female partnership target by 2018 is an ambitious one. Currently, just 19 per cent of its partners are women when counted on a full-time equivalent basis – although this rises to 22 per cent in raw headcount. 

And BLP’s promotions round this year was one of its least diverse in years, with eight men and no women made up (25 March 2014).

Accordingly, the firm is planning to use a range of tactics – including telling its headhunters to focus on female hires for areas where it wants to bulk up.

Employment head Lisa Mayhew, who heads the firm’s recently-established inclusivity and diversity group with real estate chief Chris de Pury, admits hitting the 30 per cent target in just four years is a tough ask.

“We wanted to set ourselves a target that had proper stretch in it and proper ambition from where we already were,” says Mayhew. “We’re going to do it by, between now and the end of 2018, being more thoughtful and focused in looking at the profile of our female representation in the partnership.”

The move was discussed at “a number” of board meetings, says Mayhew, who adds: “We all went into this with our eyes open and understanding that it will require different behaviours if we’re going to hit that target.”

Mayhew says that like many firms, BLP’s associate ratio is already more than 50 per cent female. She would like to see this matched at partnership level, although clearly that is an even longer-term aim.

“It’s catching them early and it’s talking to the female talent about the opportunities that they have to be promoted and becoming partner in our firm. You shouldn’t self-select out,” she says, pointing out that many women assume that having a family will reduce their career opportunities.

BLP is putting in place a “whole list” of measures to try and improve its diversity statistics, including mentoring and flexible working. While the firm wants to develop its associates and is focusing heavily on this, Mayhew admits that organic growth by itself will not be sufficient.

“In large part it will be organically-driven, but we’re talking to headhunters about the goal that we have and asking them to focus on female talent in the areas that we’re recruiting in,” she reveals.

Mayhew herself is a product of BLP’s lateral hiring, having joined the firm from Jones Day four years ago (11 October 2010). She also knows something about diversity and inequality, having advised on a number of equal pay and gender discrimination claims in her career.

Hitting the target is crucial, says Mayhew. “All the research suggests that businesses perform better if you have a critical mass of women in the senior ranks. It’s right that businesses focus on that,” she says.

The 30 per cent target seems to be the number to aim for in the law, with Baker & McKenzie (26 April 2013), Herbert Smith Freehills (13 March 2014) and Linklaters (8 September 2014) among the firms to also be aiming for this proportion of women in its partnership. Pinsent Masons is aiming for women to represent 25 per cent of its partners by 2018 and 30 per cent in the longer term (3 March 2014) and Allen & Overy is looking at a 20 per cent target by 2020 (16 May 2014) – less ambitious, but more realistic.

Some women lawyers are now taking matters into their own hands, such as the five associates from City firms who have teamed up to launch a network designed to empower female lawyers to take control of their careers (20 October 2014).

BLP’s women in numbers

BLP promotions
BLP promotions 2008-2014

BLP female partners
BLP female partners