Women in Law

We recently looked at some positive trends in the legal industry concerning the rise of women in law, but talent retention and other factors can hamper this progress. How do we embolden the next generation of women in law and continue to forge a working culture that works for all?

Progress Status of Women in Law

The rise in women lawyers is largely thanks to the hard work of the men and women in the profession who have campaigned, advocated and led by example to create a more open, diverse culture in the legal industry. There is of course, work to be done.

Women are still disproportionately finding their careers and ambitions stalling as they take a career break or seek a better work life balance. Shockingly, we are seeing higher numbers of women enter the legal profession than men, yet there are still significantly fewer women than men in senior positions.

To inspire younger generations, we must give them the tools to carve out successful careers without gender discrimination getting in the way. Here are some simple starting points for us to keep in mind…

#1 Fight the Gender Gap

Fewer than 1 in 3 senior- and middle-management positions were held by women in the majority of 67 countries with data from 2009 through 2015. You’d think that rich countries would know better but when the BBC published their pay rates for their biggest stars in the United Kingdom, the public outcry on the gender pay gap was immediate. Radio 2 presenter Chris Evans topped the list on more than £2 million, while the highest paid woman was Claudia Winkleman, on between £450,000-£499,999, earning a mere 25% of the best paid male star.

Now that U.K. companies with more than 250 employees are mandated by law to publish details of the pay gap between their male and female employees, big law firms are going to have to be proactive about their gender pay gap. If the gender pay gap for partners at big U.S. law firms is an astounding 44%, if the UK gender pay gap is 18.1% for all workers and 9.4% for full-time staff, what will it be in the City?

More important, what is your company doing to advance equality?

Top Tips

The United Nations Global Compact published a Gender Gap Analysis Tool to help companies assess current policies and programmes, highlight areas for improvement, and identify opportunities to set future corporate goals and targets. Results are provided in a concise and clear format so companies can easily identify areas for improvement.

The Fairy GodBoss shares the three following successful strategies to cut the gender pay gap:

  • Stop the salary history reveal
  • Ask for transparency
  • Design a path to action

Last but not least, learn how to negotiate your salary, from the job offer to the annual promotion.

#2 Measure & Celebrate Progress

Inspiration from those who have come before us, and those who are around us should not be underestimated. To remind ourselves of what has been achieved and the progress that has been made reminds us all that we can truly make a difference and be part of the change we want to see in the industry – the First 100 Years is a particular example of this, plus you can also read about the progress of women in the law in Scotland in our recent article.

Likewise, awards and events to recognise all who are striving for change and have achieved success in the industry are important to maintain the momentum and provide incentives. It is also important to invest in, support and share studies, research and individual stories that tell us what needs to change and what areas still need to be tackled, to provide purpose to those coming through the ranks.

Top Tips

Celebrating progress of women in law starts by measuring how far your company has come in terms of gender equality, following up with sharing your company’s progress. It can be as simple as sharing news in a company newsletter to show how the firm values and monitors diversity in law.

To provide pointers as to what to measure, Bloomberg LP, the financial information and media company launched the Bloomberg Financial Services Gender-Equality Index (BFGEI) which provides “investors and organisations with ‘standardised’ aggregate data across company gender statistics; employee policies; gender-conscious product offerings; and external community support and engagement.” The index is not ranked and participants join by filling out a voluntary survey that is free of charge.

To go further, actively seek out and sign up to programmes and initiatives that provide awards and incentives for diversity measures.

#3 Provide Meaningful Mentorships and Sponsorship

Practical support from peers and senior colleagues is vital to fuel ambition in new generation of women lawyers. This includes support both before and after career breaks. As we have seen from a recent BCG study, company culture is the key factor in maintaining their ambition. A company that provides a formal mentorship scheme, and always seeks to develop the career of their employees as far as possible no matter what their circumstance can only benefit from more determined, driven and engaged workers. If you are in a senior or partner position, it may be time to look at options for mentorship in your firm.

Latham & WatkinsBank of AmericaTarget and Freshfields focused their initiatives on mentoring female employees to give them access to sponsorship and leadership positions that qualified women have been long denied due to conscious as well unconscious biases in the workplace. Target’s CEO Brian Cornell has, in fact, partnered with PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi to form a Future Fund to achieve 50/50 gender parity in the retail industry at all seniority levels.

Top Tips

Mentoring requires input from the whole organisation, not just the mentor/mentee. When implementing or updating an existing mentorship programme, start by conducting a survey  – find out what incoming lawyers want to get out of mentoring, and who is willing to be a mentor and what they would like to bring the role.

Set out a structure for each mentor to create a formal training plan with their mentee, with specific goals and objectives. Creating a coaching team who is able to assess progress and continue to provide mutual support throughout career progression.

#4 Create and Advocate for Women Returnships in Law

A particular barrier to women fulfilling their ambitions in law is the impact of career breaks. This is finally starting to be addressed within the industry with the introduction of training programmes for women returning to work after a career break, also known as returnships. These have been largely successful across other industries, with most acquiring a position at the end of the returnship. However, law firms have been slower to launch such programmes, and there have been some concerns about the amount of people who have managed to secure a flexible position at the end of the programme (something we intend to look at in more detail in a future piece!).

Top Tips

To help encourage the provision of returnships, a few big law firms also offer returnerships, such as Allen & Overy’s Return to Law (after career breaks) or ReStart (for people over 50) in the U.K., Herbert Smith Freehill’s OnRamp Fellowship (in the U.K. and Australia), Davis Polk and Wardwell’s Revisited (in the U.S.) or Proskauer Rose LLP’s CaRE (in the U.S.).

Along the same lines, several organizations, such as OnRamp Fellowship (U.S.), Path Forward (U.S.), Working Mums (U.K.) or Women Returners, provide information on available returnships and return to work support events, while working with employers and businesses to consult on the design and delivery of returnships.

#5 Hold a United Front Against Discrimination

We cannot afford to turn a blind eye or minimise behaviour that is discriminatory, unethical or disrespectful. Our collective response as lawyers, and as women should be of no tolerance, including when (or perhaps in fact, particularly when) the behaviour doesn’t directly affect us. A comment made in passing by a client, a pattern of recruitment decisions that don’t seem quite right – it can be easier to explain away or just accept it as ‘one of those things’ in a profession still dogged by gender bias.

Top Tips

It’s important to keep talking and support one another in these instances. For example, if you are on the receiving end of the comment, ask what was meant by it. If someone was on the receiving end, ask if they were OK and if they want to take any further action. Talk about diversity within your organisation, research what measures are in place and discuss other methods to create a more inclusive environment and tackle discrimination. At firm level, ensure that any incidents of discrimination or sexist language are formally recorded and disciplined where appropriate.

Ultimately, there is strong evidence of competitive and cultural benefits of gender diversity in the workplace (see for example the Credit Suisse report on gender diversity and corporate performance). This should mean that everyone should be openly and willingly offering support and provisions to help future generations of women in law achieve their potential. We all play a role, no matter how small it might seem, in shaping the future for women lawyers.

What would you do to empower women in law?

Making Work, Work

The legal profession is less than a trailblazer in terms of flexible working practices. It is of course not the only guilty party. Other industries that have been criticised or determined poor for flexibility include aerospace (in a survey on women’s perception of openness to flexibility) and perhaps more surprisingly, the arts sector.

Is law filled with more obstinate traditionalists with no desire to change and adapt? In our experience, this is highly doubtful. However, the complete picture is somewhat more complex. There are a number of persisting practices preventing the legal industry adapting successfully to flexible working.

#1 Telling, Not Showing

When firms only pay lip service to flexible working, instead of incorporating it as the norm of the working culture, people will be reluctant to take it up. There is a reluctance to take up flexible working when offered as a specific policy, to be seen as an exception or seeking special treatment – a stigma still exists. Bridging the gap between policy and practice means implementing official flexible working guidelines as well as making the company culture more flexible overall.

  • Easy Fix: Are your top management or top workers taking up flexible working? Once they do, others will follow.

There is also the Catch-22 scenario of lack of role models and untapped talent means no example for workers coming through. This unfortunately means that more firms are likely to sit on the fence when it comes to offering flexible working options, believing that the demand is not their or that the practice simply doesn’t work in the legal profession.

This does not mean the demand is not there, in fact majority of workers have been found across industry to prioritise flexible working when considering the desirability of a company or position. In addition, the practice of flexible and remote work within law has proven to not only work well, but provide more efficiency and productivity for clients and consultants alike.

  • Easy Fix: Offer a set number of days per quarter for flexible working, at the lawyer’s discretion.

Global health care company Roche has a unique flexible work program that offers employees 12 days of remote work per quarter (48 days/year). If an employee needs to stay home to be with kids or sick parents or to focus on a specific project, the company trusts that they will still get their work done.

#2 Relying on Outdated Technologies

The legal industry has been slow to embrace new tech-led agile infrastructure, but flexible and remote working practices need the right tools to be successful – cloud-based technology, online collaboration tools and online security protocols. If your law firm is still living in the golden age of hard-drive doc storage, physical team meetings or fixed working hours, it’s time to open up.

Technology plays a vital role and it is often simply the case that some industries have not focused on investment in technology capabilities to allow the easy, secure provision of flexible working practices. It’s not just an issue for lawyers however: clients in more technology-advanced industries will naturally be looking for more innovation and flexibility from law firms and anyone providing legal services to them. Law’s lack of investment in new technology is at its root an institutional problem – from the traditions of the courtroom to the dominance of firms and billable hours – so it’s not going to change overnight, progress will need to be driven.

Easy Fix:

#3 Being Afraid to Lose Control

Which leads us to this next point. Investing in technology and flexible work in the legal industry may mean a complete change in the way that legal services are provided. Larger, traditional law firms will have to adapt immensely in order to meet flexibility demands from lawyers and clients.

While other industries that have been more exposed to non-traditional ways of working see the trend as an opportunity to be more agile and adaptable, the legal industry sees only a loss of control – of data, of lawyers who are spending less time in the office, and of their client relationships as they become more focused on the individual legal professional rather than the reputation of the firm.

There is also the fear of making the job ‘easier’ somehow devaluing the expertise required in the profession, instead of giving legal talent more time to concentrate on important aspects of the role such as court appearances and counsel. Georgetown Law’s Centre for the Study of the Legal Profession offers some insights into the need for the industry to let go of the old models and adapt to a changing market.

  • Easy Fix: Empower lawyers by entrusting them with projects and deadlines at their own pace.

#4 Rewarding Long Desk Hours

It’s often said we live in a world that rewards extroversion; people more visible generally deemed more contribution, while those who work away quietly and aren’t drawing attention to themselves are sometimes overlooked. Linked to this, long desk hours in the office is rewarded in a similar way, particularly in law, where the more time we are seen to be at our desks, the more dedicated and hard-working we are presumed to be. However, studies have clearly shown that overwork leads to more mistakes and reduced productivity.

The Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss has previously spoken out against presenteeism, identifying it as the key reason for a lack of gender equality in the profession. A TUC study in 2013 found that legal professionals are the most likely workers to do unpaid overtime. More generally, presenteeism is a damaging aspect of working culture across the board – badly managed workloads, health issues resulting from reluctance to take sick days, mistakes arising from fatigue and overwork, the list goes on.

  • Easy Fix: Reward productive lawyers and encourage them to get a life.

#5 Sticking to Full-Time Positions

Most big law firms stick to the traditional model of full-time on-site lawyer careers, regardless of your personal circumstances. While that may have the norm a decade ago, the rules of the game are changing. People want a better work-life balance or simply put, they want a life. Offering only traditional legal jobs cuts from the talent pool all the expert lawyers who are also entrepreneurs, who care for a family or who cannot commute to the office every day.

To prevent brain-drain and the loss of a highly skilled workforce that demands flexible working, here are two ideas that are easy to implement.

  • Easy  Fix: Encourage job sharing part-remote working.

A job-share team is formed by two professionals who form a partnership to perform one job. An example workweek might involve Teammate A working Monday to Wednesday and Teammate B working Wednesday to Friday at the same position, with some hand-off and complementary responsibilities on the overlap day.

A part-remote working system can mean 4 days at the office, 1 day working from home.

Within the legal profession, there has long needed to be more understanding about individual work patterns and productivity conditions and allowing people to adapt to a work flow/pattern that suits their individual profile and lifestyle outside of work. Change is however more critical than ever, as the industry must adapt to the innovations and changing attitudes to working culture in order to stay competitive. Flexible working is just one part of an impending institutional overhaul.