Women in Law

Retaining Female Talent: The Private Practice Problem

Obelisk consultant Nicola Evans looks at the statistics and perceptions around gender diversity in the legal profession, and why private practice still has a disappointing record on retaining female talent.

A 2005 report by the Law Society of Scotland and the Equal Opportunities Commission Scotland, stated that a higher proportion of men than women worked outside ‘standard office hours’. Additionally the report found that there was a significant difference between the proportions of male and female respondents engaged in part-time working (5.0% male to 23.2% female).

Scotland is in every respect no different from the rest of the UK in its assessment of women in the legal profession and the problems in retaining female talent: the same patterns are emerging and the same consequences of this must be addressed. There are still fewer women in senior positions in law, and too many are finding that their career is stalled by career breaks. Losing female employees means that firms lose money and work needs to be done to maintain diversity in the legal profession.

More recently, The Law Society of Scotland provided some statistics published at the end of 2015, which stated that there are now more female solicitors than male. For the first time, 51% of Scotland’s 11,000+ practising solicitors are female following an influx of women entering the profession in recent years.

New figures also show that 60% of in-house solicitors working in the public and private sectors are female compared to 47% of solicitors working in private practice.

These results are encouraging. However, there are some other nuances that have to be looked at in terms of gender diversity in the legal profession. There is still a dramatic fall off midway through the careers of many female lawyers and the reasons for this are varied. However, one common thread is that the profession struggles with attracting women back to the profession following a break to have family. The fundamental issue isn’t the career break to have family, but in relation to flexibility in the workplace thereafter.

Why Private Practice is Falling Behind in Retaining Female Talent

Looking at the statistics above, it is interesting that there are more women working in-house than in private practice.  The long hours culture (particularly of city firms), together with the associated inflexibility of working patterns and the sometimes detriment effect ‘ramping down’ to part-time can have on a person’s career would all appear to be valid explanations of the fact that women aren’t perhaps leaving law, but are leaving private practice. The perceived notion is that in-house positions are generally less driven by those factors, although they can hold their own unique challenges such as travel expectations and lack of client scheduling.

In a research paper for the Law Society of Scotland called ‘Perceptions and Impacts of Working Patterns within the Legal Profession in Scotland’, May 2015, the conclusions reached were not surprising: the long hours culture was endemic across the profession and the detrimental impact on the work/life balance of employees was leading to presenteeism. Flexible working patterns were welcomed, but it was acknowledged that thus far this has led to slow career progression.

How then should the profession continue to improve so that working practices can change and that practices can improve their record on retaining female talent?

  • First, remove the gender label from the table and encourage men to adopt flexible working too so that this is not seen as gender issue. Instead prioritise retention of their best people for as long as possible and be accommodating in requests for part time or flexible working.
  • Flexible working needs to be not just in hours but in location and should never be a stalemate to career progression.
  • Lead from the top down. If a partner or other senior legal person implements flexible or part time working for themselves, then there is less likely to be a stigma attached to it.
  • Technology has and should continue to facilitate ease of flexible working. There is no reason why shared network portals for files and applications should not be adopted more widely, whether a firm is big or small.
  • Finally, firms should be upfront with clients about their ‘best practices’ philosophy and that some of their employees work flexibly or part time, so there will be no need to hide this style of work from view.

Nicola Evans has a background in commercial law having worked  in-house for an international company and also having lectured in law. Nicola works as a Consultant for Obelisk Support, specialising in commercial law and providing remote, flexible services.

By dana denis-smith

Dana Denis-Smith is an entrepreneur, former Linklaters solicitor and international journalist who lives in London, UK. In 2010, she founded Obelisk Legal Support Solutions (Obelisk Support--, a London-based alternative legal services company built around flexible, highly-skilled professionals. Aware that the legal profession is far behind its times in terms of gender diversity, she initiated the First 100 Years project ( to celebrate the journey of women in the legal profession in the United Kingdom over the past 100 years and this project will celebrate the centenary of women in law in 2019.

In 2018, Obelisk's founder Dana Denis-Smith was voted Legal Personality of the Year at the LexisNexis Awards 2018 and Obelisk Support joined the top tier of two prestigious lists, the FT1000 Europe’s Fastest Growing Companies and Inc. 5000 List of Europe's Fastest-Growing Companies. In 2017, Dana also won the WEConnect International Best Mentor and Role Model Award and delivered a TEDx talk on how to be remembered (based on her observations of the legal profession). In 2016, she was voted one of Britain’s five most inspiring mothers for juggling up a new business creation with family life, as she chooses to work flexibly in order to spend quality time with her young daughter.