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Guest Blog: Achieving Gender Diversity in Law Firms

In Category: Thoughts
Published: 04/08/2017

ACHIEVING GENDER DIVERSITY IN UK LAW FIRMS

While a growing number of UK law firms are announcing targets and initiatives to improve gender diversity, female lawyers are still leaving the profession in droves.

Despite new legislation and a less traditional partnership in many families, still the woman continues to be the default child carer. For many women of child-bearing age, the prospect of long working hours is simply not compatible with balancing work and family life. This is not restricted to law firms, however the long working hours and billable targets certainly do not help.

The SRA reports that women make up 47% of all lawyers in law firms, however there are stark differences when we look at seniority; women make up just 33% of partners. The larger the firm, the greater the difference. It’s fair to say that the bigger the firm, the bigger the client expectations. Which means high billing targets resulting in longer hours, increased stress levels and more burnout.

What’s going on? Why is it taking so long to tackle gender diversity in UK law firms? Are firms doing enough? Or is it that female lawyers don’t (consciously or subconsciously) want promotion?

TWO PRONGED APPROACH

Tackling gender diversity requires a two-pronged approach. We need to examine the situation on an individual level as well as the cultural landscape within each firm.

Firstly, we need to realise that men and women tend to communicate and behave in different ways. It is not that one is right and one is wrong, they are just different. To achieve Gender diversity, we learn to value the differences.

At an individual level, women need to understand how their communication and behaviour may be perceived. For example, we need to actively encourage women to express their skills and ambitions. We need to offer coaching and mentoring to our female talent.

Secondly, on a cultural level, law firms need to appreciate and value different styles of communication and leadership. We need to create an environment in which it is safe (and encouraged) to call out incidents of discrimination.

Changing culture and mindset takes time and is difficult. The organisational culture has been established and formed over many years. Culture is reinforced when we recruit in our own likeness. Change is not always well received. But it’s not impossible. As the old adage goes, where there is a will there is a way.

CHANGE FOR SOLID BUSINESS REASONS

For diversity to improve, change must be made for solid business reasons. Gender diversity does not work if it is ‘just’ an HR initiative; the change needs to have commitment and sponsorship from the top down. In today’s climate, many firms report that clients are now demanding ‘diversity’. It’s not just about having a diverse client team, it’s about leveraging that diversity to provide a better client service.

Larger companies are now starting to penalise or reward law firms based on their diversity targets, not just who is in the client team, but who is submitting the billable hours. Firms really can't afford, therefore, to lose valuable talent and potential as women leave the profession or move to in-house roles.

My research has shown that women don’t just leave because they want or have a family. Women leave because of a lack of career satisfaction; long working hours; in many firms, the lack of flexibility; perceived bias; lack of career progression; and, not enough intellectually challenging work or meaningful personal development.

WHAT'S NEEDED?

Improving gender diversity requires a number of step changes:

  • Change in culture and mindset – perhaps the hardest but also one of the most important.
  • Commitment and support from the leadership that recognises and understands the business benefits, not just because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do.
  • A clear strategy that might include formal coaching, a leadership programme, employee networks, external partnerships, flexible working and family friendly policies.
  • Top level sponsors and champions across all practice groups.
  • Recognition that this is a business strategy not just an HR initiative.
  • Engagement and support of all staff not just women.
  • Targets - because you manage what you measure; it’s about metrics, benchmarking and assessment. Unless you measure you don’t know what works and what doesn’t.
  • Accountability at all levels – it’s not just about having a strategy in place, it’s about holding individuals accountable for creating clear and measurable opportunities.
  • Role models – not just women in senior roles but also men who have adopted flexible working. Kingsley Napley is a worthy case study where there is a 50/50 diversity balance across the firm. Their role models include a female senior partner, a female managing partner, and a male Group Head who worked part-time for many years.

MORE RESEARCH REQUIRED ON BEST PRACTICE

One of the current challenges for those tackling diversity in law firms is that we do not yet have enough data to identify the practices and initiatives that are having the biggest impact.

The SRA publishes diversity data (and soon we will have pay gap data). However, there is little research to identify the most effective strategies to improve gender diversity in law firms.

More research (quantitative and qualitative) is required to get clarity on best practice so that we can start to apply this best practice throughout the legal sector.

We need to get gender diversity right. We’re dealing with smart intelligent people. Let’s understand what helps and what doesn’t. What policies and practices have you adopted in your firm which are making a difference?

To get involved with the research on gender diversity in UK law firms, do get in touch.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

An author, coach and speaker, Sherry Bevan is a former Global Head of IT Service for a City law firm. After 25 years in the City, she created The Confident Mother, an independent coaching practice. She works with organisations in the City and with individual women in technology and professional services to develop career and leadership confidence. Sherry is currently researching gender diversity in law firms, what works and what doesn’t.

Email: sherry@sherrybevan.co.uk

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sherrybevan/

Website: http://theconfidentmother.co.uk/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/SherryRB

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