Empowering Women in Law: commercial law firms’ approach to gender equality

  • Last updated Nov 26, 2020 10:25:50 AM
  • By Raphael Jucobin

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Commercial law firms have made active efforts to pursue gender equality in the workplace, whether that’s focusing on equal representation at all levels of the company or democratising opportunities for advancement across the board.

Generally speaking, the statistics will seem encouraging on the face of things. According to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, in 2018, 49% of lawyers in firms were women, a number which rises just above 50% in mid-sized and larger firms. However, this proportion begins to drop when looking at more senior roles, as just 34% of partners at firms are women in that same year. 

That number is whittled down even further when looking at the most exclusive law firms. In a study looking at the top 10 firms in the country it was revealed that women make up only 24% of partners in 2019, with some firms going below the 20% mark.

Law firms have also made efforts to lessen the gender pay gap which exists in all industries. Indeed, between 2018 and 2019 there was a significant decrease in the mean bonus gap, reduced from 34.4% to 12.8% in the space of a year, according to a study conducted by The Law Society. By 2019, the median gap had decreased from 13.9% to 0. The overall pay gap is at 8.3%, lower than the UK average across all sectors which climbs to 17.3%.

Nevertheless, there is still a clear gender pay gap to be addressed in commercial law firms, even if some improvements have been made in the last few years. At Magic Circle firms, male partners can earn on average 7.1% to 26% more than their female colleagues, although some have managed to halve this number.

Overall, being able to enact and sustain change in the gender balance is increasingly becoming a priority for commercial law firms. One positive example of this is Freshfields, which has committed to a 30% number of female employees for partner promotion and has halved its median pay gap in 2019.

The Women in Law pledge

The Law Society launched in June 2019 the Women in Law pledge, through which organisations who signed up would commit to certain points relating to promoting gender equality. 

This includes making one named member of the senior leadership team accountable for gender diversity, tackling workplace culture that fosters bias, as well as developing a specific action plan in order to increase inclusivity. Julie-Anne Johnston, UK Diversity, Inclusion and Wellbeing Lead at Hogan Lovells explains how the firm has gone further. “Hogan Lovells has a long standing focus on achieving gender equality. Targets are key to ensuring we advance and retain our women talent. In 2012, we were the first global law firm to introduce goals for women in senior roles: 30% women in senior management roles by 2015 and 30% women partners by 2022. Since its introduction, we have gone beyond the statutory Gender Pay Reporting guidelines by including partners in our reports; this visibility is important in holding ourselves to account to maintain progress.” 

The Women in Law pledge hopefully ensure that there is accountability in the efforts commercial law firms make to promote gender equality. It’s hoped that this can inspire a more general change in office culture, beyond a firm’s targets, to reduce gender-based discrimination. Indeed, it’s important for gender equality to be more than just an empty talking point and PR, to reduce a culture of sexism that unfortunately remains present at many firms. 

Parental leave

One particular policy which has seen commercial law firms take an approach centred around gender equality is parental leave. Again, Hogan Lovells outline that “Embedding a culture of inclusion for our people is a priority to support retention. We recognize the challenges our working mothers face and are continually looking at ways to support them during and following periods of family leave. We have a strong family support package including emergency backup care, maternity mentoring and parental transition coaching.”

This in turn removes traditional perceptions on caregivers and allows for great gender equality in the ways in which paternity and maternity affect professional prospects. With these measures, firms will hope to modernise the sector and remove what was once seen as a barrier for women in their career prospects moving into senior management.

Reducing any unconscious bias as much as possible will ensure that applicants’ skillset is the most important factor in recruitment. Looking at the wider picture, only 11% of firms carry out some form of training concerning this aspect of the job.

Breaking down barriers

Ultimately, there still remains much to be done in order to ensure gender equality at commercial law firms, although positive steps have been taken. Hogan Lovells have also established a Breaking Barriers employee network, that recognises “the part men play in achieving gender equality. Our Step up network looks through the lens of our junior lawyers as they aspire to dispel outdated attitudes and identify new ways of working.  Actively seeking to identify and nurture our pipeline of diverse talent, we place continual focus on ensuring our policies, processes and programmes enable us to develop and advance our women through to partnership. As of September 2020, 33% of our International Management Committee are women and we have 29% women partners in the UK; evidence our efforts are making a difference.”

This also involves increasing awareness of the issues faced by women in the law sector, so that the push for gender equality becomes one that concerns male and female colleagues alike. This can help firms to effectively lead from the top when it comes to gender equality, as the key decision makers become more representative of the demographics of the company, as well as the wide society in which the firm operates.

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