The days when law was dominated by white males is long gone. Indeed, more women now enter the legal profession than men, while the proportion of ethnic minorities among junior lawyers is in line with the average figure for the general UK population of 13% (which was recorded at the most recent census in 2011). However, the progression of women and ethnic minorities to senior roles in law firms remains an issue – with a comprehensive new survey by Chambers Student of 105 law firms finding that just 23.3% of partners are women and only 5.6% are from ethnic minorities.
Magic circle law firms appear to be behind when it comes to promoting women to senior positions. Collectively the top five City firms - Slaughter and May, Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Allen & Overy and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer – feature just 19.1% women. There is encouragement, though, in the positive steps made by the magic circle's top performer, Linklaters, which last year launched its Women’s Leadership Programme, a pioneering initiative to develop the talents of its female lawyers. The firm now has an above average 24% of women partners.
Still, that figure remains a long way off the 65% female partners figure at civil liberties firm Leigh Day and 54% of female partners at mixed practice Fisher Meredith – the only outfits among the 105 firms surveyed which have more than 50% of women at partner level. Other firms with a high proportion of women partners include Kingsley Napley (45%), Peters & Peters (45%), Boodle Hatfield (38%) and Slater & Gordon (37.5%). At the other end of the spectrum, the London offices of US trio Cleary Gottlieb, Edwards Wildman and Vinson & Elkins all have less than 10% women partners.
The picture is similarly disappointing when it comes to ethnic diversity at senior levels, with only nine firms recording a greater or equal percentage of ethnic minority partners than the average figure for the total UK population of 13%. These progressive outfits were again led by Leigh Day, 31% of whose partners are from ethnic minority backgrounds, followed by Mischon de Reya (20%), Vinson & Elkins (18%), Mayer Brown (17%), Sheridans (17%), McDermott Will & Emery (15%), Cleary Gottlieb (14%), Peters & Peters (14%) and Clyde & Co (14%). In contrast, 17% of the firms surveyed had no ethnic minority partners at all. This statistic jars with the changing make up of those entering the legal profession, with 39.3% of students taking the Legal Practice Course (LPC) in 2011-12 coming from ethnic minority backgrounds.
Looking ahead, the hope is that, over time, diversity will improve in the senior echelons of law firms as changing demographics at entry level filter through the system. In terms of ethnicity, in particular, there is optimism. At the big international law firms, where representation of ethnic minorities tends to be above average at associate level, there is an expectation that it is a matter of time before partnerships become more diverse in a world where emerging markets are assuming ever greater importance. But it is clear that other firms have much further to go, with many lacking ethnic minority lawyers not only at partner level but in their associate ranks too. Indeed, 51 law firms out of the 90 which provided Chambers Student with ethnicity figures have fewer ethnic minority associates than the average figure for the total UK population of 13%.
On the issue of gender diversity at partner level, there are less clear signs that marked improvement will take place in the immediate future. Despite some increases over the last few years, the number of women in senior positions at law firms has remained low over the last decade. Many expected more progress to have been made by this stage given that women have accounted for approximately half of those entering the UK legal profession for over 20 years now.
When attempting to explain the current state of stasis, experts highlight a number of factors, including unconscious biases that are unwittingly preserved in law firm culture. For example, Cranfield School of Management Professor of Women in Leadership Susan Vinnicombe has suggested that the criteria used by law firms to evaluate candidates for promotion is unfair: ‘There is an overwhelming focus on ability to generate business. But women tend to be less good at bringing in business. They're typically better at retaining clients than men, which is equally valuable’, she said. Others highlight the preference of some law firms' for social events which implicitly favour men, such as golf days.
But, perhaps unsurprisingly, one major factor keeps cropping up time and again: motherhood – and the associated difficulties of balancing life as a mother with an extremely demanding career. ‘I regularly find myself working at 2am in the kitchen having spent the evening with the children’, one leading female partner at a major City firm told Legal Week in a major analysis it conducted on women in the law. Others, the magazine reports, have family arrangements where they play the primary breadwinner role. For example, leading banking partner Tamara Box says that she ‘wouldn't have been able to 'have it all’’ without her husband, who looks after the couple's four-year-old son full-time.
Frustrated at losing some of their most talented lawyers, the big law firms have attempted a host of flexible working initiatives to make it easier for women to continue to progress their careers after they have children. But, as yet, nothing has proved transformative. The question they must now ask themselves is whether the next generation of future lawyers will tolerate this status quo. Empowered by new ways of working – facilitated by social media and technology – it is distinctly possible they will not.