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July 5, 2017

Gender imbalance – What happens when top law firms fail to promote women to partnerships?

Our latest research shows that the largest global law firms are failing to promote women to their partnerships in the same numbers as their smaller counterparts. More broadly, we see a general correlation between the size, complexity and key work types of law firms and the levels of gender imbalance at Partner level within them.

Over the past year, the number of females in partnership, at the largest commercial law firms, has remained largely flat. This demonstrates a lack of progression in ensuring gender equality in the more senior roles at these firms, despite a clear and stated focus from all of the top 10 UK law firms to increase the percentage of female partners.

Male dominance at the top of law firms is likely to continue to create an erosion and/or exodus of talented female solicitors, who either respond to the relative lack of role models by deciding that Partnership is not for them, or leave in search of companies that demonstrate a stronger commitment to gender equality. Career progression is one of the most important factors when it comes to employee satisfaction, and so a lack of opportunities in partnerships is an obvious limiting factor for these larger firms as they seek to maximise the value from their talent pools.

The research showed that less than 1 in 5 of the partners in the top 10 commercial law firms in the UK are women. The number increases, slightly, to around 1 in 4 for the top 100 largest UK firms.

Research suggests that, due to sensible checks and balances around cost and management processes, larger organisations are somewhat limited by the speed at which they can implement wide-ranging changes. As such, the policies and strategies utilised to increase the number of females in partnership will almost inevitably take longer than in smaller firms and so it may simply be a matter of time before the concerted efforts of these larger firms begin to work through into greater parity.

In this way, our research implies a “diseconomy of scale,” whereby larger firms, which lack the agility of mid-tier/smaller practices, must guard against leading female talent leaving to join firms which are able to respond more quickly due to the function of these company’s less complex decision making processes. A strategy which some leading firms are employing to combat this dynamic focusses on laying out the ‘road map’ for change; giving the rising stars within the firm clarity around the vision of the practice in respect of Gender Equality and highlighting the steps which the senior management team have taken, and will be taking, to affect change.

Flexible Working in Law Firms

A key aim for the emerging technology in the legal sector is to facilitate a better work-life balance; creating working patterns which can allow capable lawyers, male or female, to realise their potential whilst also allowing for more personal flexibility. Whilst this is most obviously applied to the question of childcare/parenting, firms also recognise that a new approach to working also appeals to a younger generation of talent coming through who prioritise flexibility, and a degree of autonomy, more than previous generations.

To discuss how market research in the legal sector can support your business please contact us. We specialise in providing law firms of all sizes with the information and insights they require to make the most effective business decisions.

By Jaidee Spear, Associate at Edward Drummond

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