Do women need to be "man-shaped" to get ahead in the legal profession?

Many sources, including the law society, cite the fact that since 1990, over 60% of lawyers joining the profession have been women – a promising statistic that unfortunately doesn’t display the full reality. We take a look at the truth behind the statistics.

Recent statistics indicate that 50.2% of practising solicitors are female, but when it comes to partnership, just 33% are female on average, and the bigger the firms, the worse it becomes. Firms with 5 or more offices have an average of 29% female representation at partnership, with some of the biggest firms, including US firms in London, having as little as 10% representation.

Christina Blacklaws, the 174th president of the Law Society in 2018/19, highlighted just how rife the profession was with an unconscious bias in recruitment and work allocation, as well as unacceptable work-life balances. Indeed, there is a direct and steep correlation between billable hours targets, average leaving times, and a lack of female representation.

Where do the problems stem from?

I spoke with a trainee solicitor at a Magic Circle firm, who points towards wider societal gender pressures as a key driver behind the problem. “At my firm, this is something that is high on their agenda – encouraging female talent and nurturing them through the ranks, but the real problem is that there needs to be a societal shift.”

Clients put an exceptional demand on firms, which in turn translates to additional demands upon the lawyers – particularly in sectors such as finance. This billable hours culture, combined with the view that childcare is “a woman’s problem” breeds the issue that we have today. Echoing the words of Blacklaws, my contact emphasises that “men need to take more responsibility and engage”.

Additional problems arise when firms, particularly the larger ones, adopt the mentality of “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” This culture promotes a negative work/life balance, which can often cause lawyers’ home lives to suffer. Couple this with the increased societal pressure upon women to be more involved in their child’s life when compared to fathers, and you have a recipe for disaster – firms will haemorrhage top female talent.

It’s common that people at around 5 PQE tend to leave, and when they leave, work burdens increase on those remaining at the firm, which makes their life harder, and makes them more likely to leave, and it becomes a vicious cycle.

Where should the focus be?

There's lots of debate regarding whether firms should focus on tackling the issue at the junior end or the senior end, but the truth is that both need to be addressed.  More promotions now makes it seem more tangible and achievable to the younger women, you can say “Oh, she’s got it, I can do it too”.

Blacklaws uses the term “men shaped women” to describe women who feel like they have to conform to the actions of the men and the societal pressures that men face, in order to actually get ahead. My contact says that if she were to be at a firm with little to no representation at the senior end, then there would be far more pressure to conform to how the men work – to work any hours, and her home life would suffer. Home life is more important than work and she, amongst many others, wouldn’t want to put themselves in that position. This is a clear reason for the increase in representation of women at the junior end, but a stagnation at the senior end. Trying to nurture female lawyers at the junior end alone is not enough.

Why aimlessly promoting doesn’t solve anything

Firms need to be more prepared. Even if they think profits might take a hit, making additional hires and additional promotions will lower the burden on employees, make them happier, feel more valued and make them more likely to want to stay. A rapidly increasing number of firms are abandoning billable hours targets, and adopting friendlier policies towards flexible working, and indeed, there are many male partners championing this cause.

My contact has worked with great male partners who understand that it’s the quality of work and not the hours you put in:

"I have known female partners who have children, and have set certain boundaries at work, and as a result are far more efficient, and just as good as male partners because they have to be. That should be recognised and promoted instead of how many hours you put in.

"Lots of people say there is already equality – why keep banging the drum? It’s not good enough that people still accept stereotypical gender norms as being ok.  These views are entrenched in society and we need to keep battling."

There’s no point mindlessly promoting women who are from these privileged backgrounds who hold these views - the “men shaped women” that Blacklaw writes about, because it won’t tackle the issue, and it will have a negative effect. These people are blinded into the status quo. People need to be promoted who consider everyone's' life perspective from their respective points of view.

It needs to be the right people. 

Just mindlessly promoting women is not going to solve the underlying issue, it needs to be people who are championing the causes of women, understanding different perspectives, and being open to change.

The Magic Circle firm referred to earlier has a reverse mentoring scheme that is great for educating various demographics in such a large firm, and this should be replicated amongst the wider legal market. There needs to be a two-pronged approach, a grass roots effort at the junior end, providing more mentorship, but a more direct effort to improve things at the senior end, where these key decisions are made.

Topics: Insider, Featured, Legal, Professional Services, Talent Solutions

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November 25, 2019
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