Penelope Warne, Senior Partner, CMS Cameron McKenna
Senior partner: Penelope Warne set up her own law firm before joining CMS Cameron McKenna

Just weeks into her new role, Penelope Warne feels both proud and daunted. The senior partner of London-headquartered CMS Cameron McKenna is the only woman among the top leadership of the UK’s 20 biggest law firms.

“Big City law firms are conservative kinds of places,” she says, adding that the £25bn-a-year market is resistant to change for a broad range of reasons. “It’s many different aspects of the way we do our business, which over years and years has been hugely profitable. Therefore people hang on to a traditional model.”

It is a model that lags behind other professions when it comes to gender diversity. Few female lawyers reach the level of partner, when they typically share in a firm’s profits rather than take home a salary.

Just 18.6 per cent of partners across the UK’s top 20 law firms are women, according to research published last year by The Lawyer magazine, even though their intake of trainees is fairly evenly balanced between men and women.

This statistic – which is flatlining rather than improving – compares unfavourably with big banks. At Lloyds Banking Group, for instance, 28 per cent of senior roles are occupied by women; it is targeting 40 per cent by 2020. At Barclays, meanwhile, the figure is 21 per cent, with a target of 26 per cent by 2018.

At a global level, there is a similar paucity of women in the top jobs. Just 4 per cent of the 200 biggest law firms in the US have female managing partners – similar to a chief executive role – according to a survey by the US National Association of Women Lawyers. This matters because the US and the UK dominate the global rankings of large law firms and thus the legal landscape.

Exceptions are emerging, however. In May Ms Warne will have company, for instance, when Sonya Leydecker becomes co-chief executive of Herbert Smith Freehills, the UK-Australian firm.

Sonya Leydecker
Sonya Leydecker becomes co-chief of Herbert Smith Freehills in May

“Things are changing but they are deep-seated,” says Ms Leydecker, who previously headed its litigation department for blue-chip corporate clients. “There has been quite a lot of unconscious bias, with people promoting in their own image.”

The gender diversity statistics at Herbert Smith Freehills would certainly back up that assertion: 17.4 per cent of its equity partnership is female. Before its 2012 merger, the old Herbert Smith side of the business could only muster 10.7 per cent.

Both Ms Leydecker and Ms Warne share attributes – they are respected lawyers yet humble in person. Their analyses of the problem are also similar (including the inevitable quotations from Lean In, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 tome on women in the workplace). Both stress the importance of mentoring, and their firms will set new targets for female partners (both firms are in The 30% Club, a campaigning group).

CMS Cameron McKenna is already one of the better City firms in this regard: 25 per cent of its equity partnership in the UK is female, rising to 30 per cent for the overall global partnership, which includes so-called salaried partners.

Alumni of the firm inc­lude Fiona Woolf, the Lord Mayor of London, who is also pushing for better representation of women on boards across the City as one of her pet projects.

Yet Ms Leydecker, who is firmly against positive discrimination, admits that management roles – on top of a gruelling partnership career and perhaps being the primary carer at home – are not necessarily on all women’s “bucket list” of things to do before they die. “Women are sometimes motivated by different things; top jobs and titles may not be as important as they are to men.”

Recent research by Eversheds, another London-headquartered firm, on young lawyers’ aspirations may confirm this: 77 per cent of male respondents said they wanted to become a partner, compared with 57 per cent of female respondents. Moreover, 46 per cent of male lawyers surveyed thought law was a career for life, compared with just 34 per cent of female lawyers.

It remains a problem that the years when talented senior associates are groomed and selected for partnership coincide with the period when many women take time off to begin to raise a family.

“Partnership does coincide with that critical period,” says Ms Warne, whose role as senior partner is akin to a chairman position. “There really isn’t an easy way round it. You just have to believe, somehow, that you can do it.”

Committed to overhauling the male-dominated law firm model, she feels strongly that culture is set from the top. Her promotion certainly sent out a strong message. Originally a banking lawyer at Slaughter and May, the City firm, she moved while pregnant to Aberdeen to follow her husband, who works in the oil industry. Within two years she had her second baby.

“At the same time, I set up my own law firm and I also independently studied to become a Scots lawyer as well as an English lawyer,” she explains, as if this were the most natural choice in the world for a mother of two infants.

“I thought: by the time I’ve got all that organised, I’ll be ready to have a different career as an oil-and-gas lawyer. I had strategically thought that if my husband’s going to be in this career, and maybe we are going to travel the world, it makes sense for me to do this.”

Her practice was so successful it was eventually absorbed into CMS Cameron McKenna. She then went on to open new offices for the firm in Edinburgh, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City, ran a busy practice with clients including BG Group and BP, while still finding time to lecture at Dundee University.

Welcoming new offices into the CMS fold seems to be a particular talent of Ms Warne: she was instrumental in securing the surprise merger (she prefers “combination”) with Dundas & Wilson, one of the best known Scottish law firms.

The merger is due to complete this year. Coincidentally, Dundas also has a woman at the top of the firm: Caryn Penley is co-managing partner.

One of the reasons the merger took the market unawares was that CMS had long been touted as hunting for a US merger partner, which Ms Warne acknowledges remains a top priority for her as part of the firm’s quest to be truly global.

But she is equally open to looking eastward and combining with firms from China, which are an increasingly ambitious and outward-facing part of the global legal market.

She has al­ready forged close ties with Sunshine Law, a boutique energy firm based in Shanghai and Beijing which, in a satisfying parallel, has a female founding partner.

Perhaps looking down the very small list of US firms with female leadership would provide a clue as to CMS’s potential transatlantic merger partner.


Women bucking the trend in US and Australia

The slick US television drama Suits is set in what is supposedly one of New York’s top law firms. The attorneys have movie-star good looks, hop between beds and stab each other in the back. However, the most far-fetched aspect of the plot could be that the firm’s managing partner is a woman.Just 4 per cent of the biggest 200 law firms in the US have a female managing partner. Those who have made it to the top have gone on to world renown:Those women who have nonetheless reached top positions in the US legal profession include Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund and France’s former finance minister. In 1999 she became the first female chairman of Baker McKenzie, the Chicago-headquartered global firm.Australia, meanwhile, is one of the most liberalised legal markets in the world– inspiring an overhaul of the UK’s legal services – yet has had relatively little success in promoting women into senior roles. Mary Padbury chaired Blake Dawson, which merged with Ashurst, the City firm, as part of the Antipodean merger mania that has swept London-headquartered firms. She is now vice-chairman of the combined firm. Sharon Cook, the managing partner of Sydney’s Henry Davis York, said last year that women had succeeded in Australian firms “in spite of the culture not because of it”.

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