Diversity fail: proportion of women partners at top UK firms hasn’t increased at all in five years

Research for The Lawyer’s Diversity Audit has revealed that the proportion of partners at at the UK’s top 100 firms who are women has stayed static at 22 per cent in the last five years, despite the introduction of aspirational targets by many firms.

Of the 16,183 full-time equivalent partners at the top 100 firms in 2014/15, 3,539 – the equivalent of 22 per cent – were female.

This represents no proportional shift at all since 2010, when a diversity report published by The Lawyer found that of the 9,915 partners in the top 100 at that time, 2,163 – again 22 per cent – were women. 

David Isaac, chair of the diversity steering group at Pinsent Masons, said the figures showed there was now a need for quotas on female partner proportions to be introduced.

“We’re a really conservative profession and we don’t embrace change easily or quickly,” said Isaac.

“Men don’t want to relinquish power and women aren’t pushing themselves forward so they’re not being considered eligible or have support to get into those positions. That’s why we need quotas.”

A number of firms have introduced aspirational targets for female partner proportions, with Ashurst, Eversheds, Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF), Pinsent Masons and Taylor Wessing aiming for 25 per cent while Berwin Leighton Paisner, Clifford Chance, Clyde & Co and Norton Rose Fulbright are aiming for a more ambitious 30 per cent.

However, few are in favour of quotas, with HSF diversity and inclusion head David Shields saying his firm was definitively anti-quota.

“Quotas are binding and they force a numerical situation in a sense,” he said. “Yes they get the numbers, but sometimes you get perverse behaviours to get the numbers.”

Daniel Danso, global head of diversity at Linklaters, said his firm was also against quotas because they can “sometimes put people in place without merit or readiness”, while the psychological after-effects for anyone being promoted during a time of quotas can be damaging.

“Those people would never know if they got the position because they were the best person for it or if it was just because they were a woman,” he said.

The debate comes after The Lawyer’s research revealed that, despite females making up more than 60 per cent of law students and law graduates, almost 60 per cent of newly qualified solicitors and just under 50 per cent of all solicitors on the roll, only 10 firms in the entire UK 200 have partnerships that are at least 50 per cent female while at the top 100 firms females make up 25 per cent or more of the equity partnership at just 24 firms.

For more analysis read this week’s cover story and leader.

Previously…

6 Nov 15: One third of young female lawyers have lost their ambition to reach the top

18 Sep 15: Women in law want promotions, not a better “work/life culture”

Lost leaders: why don’t more women make it to the top?