News & Views

Breaking Ranks – Women in the Law


Any woman working in the field of law will be acutely aware of the challenges that she will face if she is to be successful in her career. Commercial law, in particular, is historically dominated by men and brings with it a culture of long and unsociable hours. Women still retain primary responsibility for childcare, and this fact alone can present a hurdle to career progression and success.

Although great progress has been made to remove some of the barriers faced by women, particularly with the increasing acceptance of flexible working (helped in no small part by technological advances), it is still a fact that, despite the number of women entering the profession outnumbering men, the number of women at equity partner level is significantly lower than men.

Last week (21 March 2018) saw the launch of the International Bar Association’s Report on Women in Commercial Legal Practice, which considered the reasons why women continue to experience barriers to the most senior positions in commercial law firms. The Report is both startling and unsurprising: startling in its confirmation of the difficulties faced by women, and unsurprising in that it says nothing that most women don’t already know.

The Report concluded that:

  • Female representation as equity partners in law firms remains low, often less than 20 per cent.
  • Discrimination against, and sexual harassment of, women continues to be a significant problem.
  • The demands of billable hours, and the expectation that lawyers must commit themselves “unconditionally” to work, are used to call into question women’s commitment to their careers.
  • Diversity policies are generally ineffective, because they are designed to tackle the problem of women, not the workplace.

It is clear to anybody reading the Report – and any women working in the law – that things need to change if law firms wish to create a workforce reflecting broader expertise and diversity. At the launch of the Report, a panel of distinguished leading lawyers working both in house and in private practice recognised that increased diversity was in the interests of the law firms themselves, as well as the lawyers. We heard how clients are becoming increasingly alive to the issue of diversity and are demanding greater transparency – including publication of male to female ratios – from their law firms.

There is still a long way to go. This Report, though, should be required reading for all law firms who want to self-reflect on their own internal barriers, to make sure that the brightest and best lawyers – male or female – are attracted, retained and progressed within their firms.

After all, it makes commercial sense.

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