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In a profession in which law firms struggle to retain female talent and establish gender parity at partner level, young female lawyers stand apart.
Nurtured on a diet of globalisation, new technology and equal opportunity in the classroom, today’s women expect more from the workplace.
US-based LLM (master of laws) student Anna Bulman is one representative of this new generation. “The way we have been raised is quite different from previous generations,” she says, when asked about women.
“We are much more empowered and even if we can’t achieve complete institutional reform, it is reasonable to expect law firms to meet our needs halfway”
Ms Bulman discusses the partnership track and the unsociable hours it brings with her peers at Columbia Law School – particularly with the women, who make up 55 per cent of the cohort. “I have friends who practise corporate law and the work/life balance is horrific,” she says, adding that, as things stand, she has no desire to be a partner in a law firm.
Ms Bulman’s views are reflected in research by Eversheds, the London-based international law firm. In a survey of 1,800 lawyers aged 23-40, it found just 57 per cent of women aspired to be partner compared with 77 per cent of men.
Greater opportunities for flexible working were important to all respondents but twice as many women rated it as crucial. Work/life balance was also more important to women, 96 per cent of whom said achieving a work/life balance was of prime importance to their career satisfaction. However, Lee Ranson, managing partner at Eversheds says another finding of the survey should command employers’ attention. The research also showed that women were paid 30 per cent more than men at the start of their careers.
“The fact that women are getting better jobs at the start of their careers may well be evidence of them being the best and brightest candidates,” he says. “We need to adapt to this.”
According to Mr Ranson, some law firms are further down this route than others. “A lot of good things are happening in the profession,” he says. Initiatives could include establishing new career structures or adopting flexible working.
The existence of more female role models is clearly a factor too. Gráinne Hawkes, an LLM student at the College of Europe in Belgium, says she accepted a training contract with UK law firm Linklaters this year based on the fact it had appointed more women than men as partners in 2013 and continued to have a good ratio in terms of male-female partner appointees.
“I thought it might be easier for me there if getting to partner level was what I wanted,” she says.
For law firms lagging behind, schools are increasingly finding ways to offer assistance. This month the University of Cambridge Judge Business School in the UK launched a three-day course titled Women in Law Leadership. Fiona Rice, the programme director, says men can attend. “The whole women’s agenda has become an issue for a lot of law firms,” Ms Rice says. “They can’t afford to lose these women.”
In the US, several law schools now offer law degrees in conjunction with women and gender studies. The LLM on women and the law at American University Washington College of Law was established in 1984.
Asked whether the next generation of female lawyers could be seen as agents of significant change, Caroline Berube, a lawyer in Asia, is doubtful. “It’s very difficult to change the legal industry,” she says. “It’s highly competitive. ”
But Patricia Saiz, a professor of arbitration and investment at Esade Business and Law School in Spain, believes things are changing.
“I see a shift from women lawyers thinking they need to sacrifice work or family life to really leaning in, and because of that determination, barriers will be broken,” she says.