Partnership promotions are down across the board this year, but in smaller UK firms female lawyers are faring better than at their larger counterparts.

Tammy Samuel

Twenty-seven firms that fall below the top 30 mark in terms of turnover have announced their 2009 partnership promotions, and a large proportion are female.

Eighty-five partners have been made up in this group compared with 240 in the 26 top-30 firms that have announced promotions.

Of the former group, 36 of the new partners, or 43 per cent, are women. This contrasts significantly with the situation in the largest 30 firms, where 66 of those promoted, or 28 per cent, are female.

Bath-based Thring Townsend Lee & Pembertons, which had a turnover of £22.9m last year and came in at number 91 in the UK 200, made four women up this year out of a total of five promotions, bringing its total partner count to 55.

“We’ve promoted five excellent people, four of whom happen to be women,” said managing partner Thomas Sheppard. He believes that smaller firms may be promoting more women because male candidates are more ­attracted to the City.

One of the new partners at Thring Townsend, who has returned to the firm after a break to have ­children, works four days a week and runs the commercial team in Swindon. The lower-value transactional practices at smaller firms might be more amenable to flexible working arrangements than at City firms, Sheppard argues.

“My job or any job ought to be able to be held by either a man or a woman. There ought to be flexible and part-time working options, which is quite difficult to do in the transactional departments,” he said.

That said, Tammy Samuel, one of the six new partners made up at City firm Denton Wilde Sapte this year, suggests this may not be entirely the case.
“I have four children aged from 10 to two years. It’s taken me longer to get to partnership, but I don’t think it’s put me back,” she said. “I don’t work part-time, but I have the flexibility of being able to work at home in the evenings.”

A number of the smaller firms that promoted a ­larger proportion of women this year have female lawyers in senior roles. Half of the four new partners at Field Fisher Waterhouse and Pannone are women, while the ­former is managed by a woman, Moira Gilmour, and the ­latter’s senior partner Joy Kingsley was managing partner for 14 years.

In terms of practice areas, dispute resolution, insurance, private client and property are among the smaller firms’ most favoured practice areas for promotions to the partnership. Only one, Watson Farley & Williams, promoted into finance this year, making up two out of five in the practice group. This contrasts with the top 30, where Allen & Overy, Ashurst and Norton Rose all promoted more into finance than any other area.

Michael Lingens, ­managing partner at Speechly Bircham, which promoted two into private client, two into employment and one into insolvency, said these areas are “recession-proofish areas”.

But whether an area is cyclical or counter-cyclical is not a determining factor in law firm promotions this year. Promotions are long-term investments and the chosen group’s fit with the firm’s core practices, brand and growth strategy is just as important as immediate ­revenue-generating capacity.