Demand for legal skills across the UK has risen in 2018, firms are busy and therefore need talented individuals to match the demand – and increase their capacity and improve the efficiency of the firm. Of course, this is great news for the profession and encouraging for junior female associates looking to climb the law firm ladder.
However, gender inequality is still common in the legal profession even though there are more female junior lawyers than men. Women are still hitting a glass ceiling when it comes to senior positions at law firms as males still overwhelmingly dominate these positions.
At last year’s Celebrating Women in the Law event, it was strongly echoed by those attending that there was no progress in terms of the percentage of women in leadership positions in law firms over the last 20 years.
To improve retention rates of qualified women, numerous initiatives have been set up by law firms to tackle this issue. One factor which has not been tackled and contributes greatly to the loss of lawyers is those who temporarily pause their careers, usually for childcare and/or eldercare but seldom return to the profession.
In 2016 the number of women who had taken long career breaks but intend to return to work was significant – with law being the second largest sector after banking. Many women face difficulties and challenges when they wish to return to law after a long break, so some decide on a career change, others lose their professional self-confidence but mostly they find there is a distant lack of a clear route back into the profession.
Earlier this year, to mark International Women’s Day, The Law Society carried out the largest ever survey on gender equality in the legal profession. Christina Blacklaws, Vice President of The Law Society commented on the survey. She said …“While more and more women are becoming lawyers, this shift is not yet reflected at more senior levels in the profession. Our survey and a wider programme of work during my presidency in 2018-19 seek to understand progress, barriers and support remedies.
“Unconscious bias in the legal profession is the most commonly identified barrier to career progression for women, while flexible working is seen as a remedy by an overwhelming 91% of respondents to our survey.
“Interestingly, while half of all respondents said they thought there had been progressing on gender equality over the last five years, there was a significant difference in perception by gender with 74% of men reporting progress in gender equality compared to only 48% of women.”
Christina Blacklaws concluded: “With our women in leadership programme, the Law Society is committed to giving women and men in law the tools to make positive changes towards gender equality.
“Every law firm, solicitor and client will benefit from greater equality in our places of work. I believe our justice system will also be stronger if the legal profession better reflects the values we uphold.”
Many firms are now losing out on a cohort of talented aspiring female junior lawyers as they look at the structure of their teams and recognise the absence of female role models in senior positions within their practice area – and seek out other firms that have more gender-neutral teams.
More and more skilled female solicitors are hitting a cattle grid within the law firms they work for as they cannot move up the hierarchy. They are either leaving the law altogether or they move to a direct competitor to align themselves with the opportunity to work and learn from partners who they perceive as role models in the profession.
One such role model which junior female lawyers will invariably want to aspire to is Kathleen Russ, who was recently appointed as the first female senior partner of Travers Smith LLP. In other parts of the legal profession, Baroness Hale, who champions the need for greater diversity in the highest ranks of the judiciary, was appointed the first female president of the Supreme Court last year.
These senior role models will no doubt encourage up and coming young female lawyers to aim high in their professions. But as a sector, law firms need to increase their existing efforts significantly by creating a genuine platform that enables female lawyers to develop their careers at the highest level possible.
Without a doubt, to bring forward the date when parity is finally reached, a cultural shift needs to happen sooner rather than later.