Cogence Search discusses leading women lawyers: Expectations, experiences and achievements

“Ashurst falls short of 40 per cent female target in 19-strong promotions round,” is the lead headline on an April email news update from The Lawyer. Further down the bulletin another headline reads, “Reed Smith announces agile working in London ahead of office ‘refresh’”. Anyone who has been following the  interviews of Reed Smith’s Europe and Middle East Managing Partner, Tamara Box, will immediately know that this move is part of Reed Smith’s continuing diversity and inclusion strategy.

The issue of gender progression in the legal profession has always been a hot potato, with the noticeable lack of women in senior roles never far from the headlines. The latest figures state that women in partnership roles in the UK’s top 100 firms is still, on average, at less than 25%. If gender progression is a hot potato, social mobility is a hotter one, with representation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups at 15.5% across the levels.


The reasons behind the lack of women at the top are hardly new news – it is well documented that the biggest contributing factor is ‘bias’. Once the domain of psychology experts, the term now has a permanent place in firm parlance.

For a quick recap, bias takes on many guises, from abstract sexism to perceptions of power and efficiency being linked to male traits. There is - perhaps an unconscious - notion that men are generally treated better all round; and also a perception that women are more self-critical and therefore less assertive. Indeed, in 2013 Clifford Chance found itself in hot water when a missive to all female fee earners was leaked. This email asked recipients to deepen their voices and lose their quirky charms when in front of potential clients.

Then there is the whole motherhood issue. Until recently, law firms liked to cite motherhood as a reason for not having women in senior management roles – would new mothers really want the responsibility of partnership when they have the responsibilities of parenthood to contend with? There was also the view that a decision to have children could be a deal breaker for a firm.

We set up a small discussion group of 29 – 45 year old professional women to examine the topic of gender and progression. This gave us some shocking insights into past attitudes:

 “10 years ago, I was an associate in a private practice City law firm,” says Liz (43). “I was told that ‘having ovaries, and choosing to use them, isn't really compatible with being a partner’. A colleague was told ‘the firm pays you enough so your husband won’t have to work if you have a baby’.”

Fortunately, and thanks to the public outcry from the media and organisations such as Women in the City, the 30% Club and others, firms for the most part have moved on, and experiences like Liz’s are a thing of the past. Today, personal development training, diversity schemes and women in partnership initiatives are very much in vogue. However, it seems that even the best intentioned firms may find they have feet of clay thanks to that little word, bias.

Anna (36) works in a client facing role in a top tier firm. Her experience demonstrates that such overt suppression as endured by Liz may have been eradicated;  nevertheless motherhood means time out, and that could be a career killer:

 “We have a very visible scheme for getting more women into partnership. However, [after my maternity leave] I wanted to drop to 80% over the year (as in working full time on projects and then taking time in lieu) and was told I would need to take on a non-client facing role. I fought and got it and client feedback was great but the internal view was I couldn't be promoted because I wasn't demonstrating sufficient commitment.”


“For stupidity to triumph, all it takes is for intelligent people to do nothing.”

Fortunately for women and for social mobility generally, things are being done. It is widely acknowledged that diversity is the key to growth, and the changes can and are happening. Next week, we present the views of those at the top of the profession championing those changes and pioneering their sustainability. 


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