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Closing the gender gap in the UK legal market

The number of female lawyers at the UK’s top 100 law firms is increasing, but only slowly – so why are women still significantly under-represented at partner level?

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It has been more than 30 years since women began to represent the majority of new entrants into the legal profession in the UK[1]. Yet gender parity at partner level has still not been achieved. In fact, with just under a quarter of equity partner positions being currently held by women[2], parity is a long way off.

There has been some positive progress, with the top 10 firms continuing to record a small year-on-year rise in female partnership, but outside this elite group, the progression of women at full equity partner level has plateaued[3]. Magic Circle stalwart Linklaters’ 2021 appointment of its first female leader in its 183-year history was hailed in the industry, but under-representation of female lawyers is clearly an issue in the UK legal market.

Understanding gender representation

Factors such as an increased focus on flexibility post-pandemic, greater emphasis on ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) criteria and growing pressure from clients show that the landscape is changing, however. It has become critical that representation in the law is carefully considered and that visibility is prioritised.

From shifting working patterns to digital transformation, the corporate world has gone through a period of significant transition. Traditionally, private practice law firms have calculated billable hours and revenue targets annually; given the contingencies associated with maternity leave and childcare, this has not necessarily benefited female lawyers. With new working models being championed across the corporate world, efficiency is increasingly being favoured over traditional presentism.

“The pandemic has given us the opportunity to revolutionise what it means to be a successful lawyer,” says Elizabeth Petit, Director of Research & Development and Managing Editor at Best Lawyers, the peer review guide to the legal profession. “Today, there is increasing flexibility, which means not having to choose between your career and your personal obligations. Flexibility is good for supporting any demographic in the legal industry that has not historically had a lot of support.”

The issue is a nuanced one. “While childcare and maternity issues are factors, I have noticed that a climate of machismo has more to do with putting women off going for senior leadership positions,” argues Ann Benzimra, a Dispute Resolution Partner at Fieldfisher, recognised in the 2023 edition of Best Lawyers in the United KingdomTM. “While there has been progress, I don't think it is happening quickly enough, and there is still a level of regressive behaviour going on.”

Creating change, adding value

Although corporate responsibility is a driver for systemic change, it is becoming clear that firms tackling gender disparity can unlock financial benefits as a result. McKinsey research reveals that closing the UK gender gap has the potential to generate an extra £150bn on top of business-as-usual GDP forecasts by 2025[4].

Following a decision by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in March 2021 to suspend the requirement for employers to be transparent on gender pay gap reporting for 2019/20[5] as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, analysis into why there is a discrepancy between the number of female lawyers entering the profession and those who attain senior leadership roles seems more crucial than ever.

The legal market commentator Best Lawyers – the only such organisation to be run on peer-review principles – can offer a platform for the views that count and improve visibility for less privileged groups. “This is a topic that is important to us on a personal level,” says Petit. “As much as we can be champions of this issue in the legal industry, and be another voice to support change, we would like to use our platform to do that.”

Better use of resources and improved representation will increase performance and add value to any law firm offering, but, says Benzimra, “Firms have to be serious about implementing strategies that are not effectively just tick-box exercises.” She believes a collective endeavour is called for. “All lawyers must ask themselves what they can do to bring the next generation through. The right representation tends to get the right results in terms of decision-making and changing the culture of a firm."

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