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

Many women enter the legal profession, but few make it to the top. Becky Waller-Davies asks why


Just over one-fifth of the partners at the UK’s top 100 law firms are female, according to research by Lawyer 2B’s big sister The Lawyer (see box, below). This is clearly a contentious issue among qualified lawyers, attracting arguments on individual merit versus years spent at a firm as well as quotas – all trying to combat the age-old issue that most women need time off to have children.

But is – and should – this be a concern for women students and trainees? For Izzy Abidi, legal adviser at Eversheds, the possibility that making partner as a woman could be a challenge occurred to her only once she was in the industry.

She says: “Once I began my training contract I noticed numerous societies or talks on women in business or in the legal profession. That triggers you to think. Come qualification, you’re aware of it, but it doesn’t affect me day-to-day.”

The high proportion of female law students and trainees can mean the issue does not raise its head for most at this stage.

Claire Harris, graduate recruitment manager at Hogan Lovells, highlights the discrepancy between the ease with which the profession attracts women and the relatively low number in the upper ranks.

“Attracting women is really not a problem and we get high numbers of excellent candidates, and good numbers qualifying too,” she says. “Later, there are personal choices to be made, but organisations need to be mindful of the talent they need to retain in that area.”

Retention does seem to be the name of the game, but that is where this snapshot gets complicated.

One recruiter at a top City firm says: “I don’t think students think long-term anymore. Particularly with a career in law, a lot of students, whether female or male, are not looking much beyond five years. When I first worked in graduate recruitment at another City firm I’d constantly be asked ‘how quickly can I make partner?’ or ‘what’s the average time for partner?’ but I don’t get those questions anymore.

“You have to remember that this is a generation who do not see themselves working for the same firm all their lives. A lot of people come to a top City firm because it will give them the best training and set them up well, and they can’t necessarily go higher than that. But they know that if they want to it’s easy to take a step down or move around.”

As young lawyers view their career progression in a different light to previous generations and move around more freely, it is becoming harder to assess whether women are concerned about making partner. There is certainly a lack of dialogue between trainees or students and law firms, but why is unclear.

Harris says: “We don’t get huge numbers of questions about that issue in the graduate recruitment process, whether that’s because people feel they can’t ask or it’s not high on their list of priorities. To be frank, if I was a student I’d probably be careful about asking certain questions too, but having said that, from a recruiter’s point of view I’d rather people did ask. It wouldn’t put me off and the partners I interview with expect questions on it.”

Louder than words

Whether it’s a Generation Y shift or a reaction to the recession, women are acting, if perhaps not thinking, differently about their chances of making partner. Although it’s more difficult to track female career progression – and therefore harder to hold firms to account – this means students are being more proactive in their approach to recruitment, leading to the possibility that the recession has, in some small way, been good for career progression.

Eversheds’ graduate recruitment adviser Lorraine Petheram believes students have reacted to an unstable jobs market by upping their game.

She says: “If you asked students in 2009-10 if they were worried about making partner it would have been different, but now I’m seeing they are much more polished, focused and career-driven.”

Students may be working harder, but are they convinced it will pay off? Abidi acknowledges that for women wanting to make partner the issue is significant, but adds: “I wouldn’t say it worries me now. A few firms, including the one I work for, are quite forward-looking. I expect the trend of more women making partner to continue.” 

There go the girls

The Lawyer research shows that just 23.5 per cent of partners in the top 100 UK firms are female, with equity partners standing at 9.4 per cent. In the magic circle things are worse. The highest proportion of female partners is 14.6 per cent at Slaughter and May, while Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer has just 12 per cent.

The highest scorers in the top 20 are Kennedys and Berrymans Lace Mawer, with 38.2 and 38 per cent respectively. Shoosmiths i s next with 32.4 per cent, followed by Irwin Mitchell with 30.9 per cent.

A healthier picture can be painted for the top 50-100. Russell Cooke has 40 per cent female partners and Pannone 40.8 per cent. Manches is edging towards a 50/50 split with 45.6 per cent and Sackers achieves 50 per cent.

CMS Cameron McKenna diversity partner Daniel Winterfeldt tells The Lawyer: “Law firms have realised they’re wasting money if they have all these women at trainee level who then walk out the door. It’s about merit – how do you value and judge merit? It’s subjective and we need to challenge that.”