Freshfields mulls female partnership targets in diversity push

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer is considering introducing targets for the number of female candidates put forward for partnership promotion each year.

The move comes in response to the firm’s poor showing in rankings of top firms by their proportion of female equity partners, which show that the firm lags behind all of the magic circle in this area.

Freshfields global people partner Richard Norbruis is heading a campaign to improve female retention at the firm alongside senior management and diversity champion Avril Martindale.

Other options on the table include more flexible working methods, mentoring for up-and-coming female associates, presentation training for women and devising methods for increasing the number of women in leadership positions.

The firm is also considering broadening a scheme facilitating flexible working and mentoring for female associates – currently in place in Germany and Austria – to the rest of the network. The project, known as the ‘smart balance’ scheme, was launched in Austria and German last year.

The latest plans were set to be discussed at the firm’s annual partnership retreat in Paris last Thursday and Friday (24 and 25 May). Formal quotas are not on the agenda.

Freshfields could not confirm how many female candidates it aims to have on the slate each year as the firm is still consulting with partners. Just three of the firm’s 20 newly-promoted partners this year were female (28 March 2012), compared with two in 2011 (4 March 2011).

Norbruis said: “We are considering introducing a target for the number of women candidates put forward for partnership each year. Our hope is that this may increase the number of women elected.

“We will be discussing gender diversity with our partners. We’re not the only firm that has chosen this as a focus. We are considering introducing targets – we’re still discussing whether it’s useful. However, our main focus is on measures to help retain our talented women.”

Research by The Lawyer showed that 11 per cent of Freshfields equity partners were women in 2011, putting it in joint 16th place out of UK firms, behind magic circle rivals Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Linklaters and Slaughter and May (14 September 2011).

Clifford Chance has already set a long-term target to fill 30 per cent of its partnership with women but has no set target for the number of female candidates for partnership each year. 12 per cent of its equity partners in 2011 were female.