Women in the Legal Sector

Posted on 13/3/2017 by Katherine Memery

International Women’s Day, held each year on 8th March, is a global celebration of the economic social, political and cultural achievements of women. More importantly, it also serves to highlight gender inequality and recognises the persistent barriers for women.

Whilst the legal profession has made progress in becoming more diverse, issues concerning retention, progression, flexible working and equal pay remain, and there is a long way to go before we achieve gender parity.

Female lawyers: the facts

The gender gap is slowly closing. Women now account for just under half (48%) of all solicitors, up from 40.5% a decade ago. Today, retention is the key issue. Female recruitment is buoyant but few capable women reach the top of the legal career ladder.

Women now make up 67% of law students and 63% of trainees, yet they account for less than a quarter of partners and only 28% of judges. In traditionally male-dominated areas, like corporate finance and litigation, magic circle and US firms, the proportion of female partners is even lower.

The gender pay gap

Since 2000, salaries for female assistant and associate solicitors have grown faster than those of their male peers. However, according to an earnings survey carried out by The Law Society, men still earn, on average, 20% more than women.

The survey found the gender pay gap across all private practice solicitors to be 19.2% (slightly greater than the UK average of 18.1%). This is staggering considering the Equal Pay Act was passed more than 45 years ago and equates to an average salary of £60,000 for male lawyers and £48,500 for female lawyers, a difference of two months’ salary.

The gender gap can, in part, be explained by the fact that the areas of law female solicitors tend to work in (family, social welfare, and employment) tend to be lower-paid than the business and commercial spheres dominated by male lawyers. This relationship between low pay and female-dominated practice areas says a lot about the residual archaic attitudes towards women in law.

Why are there so few female partners?

In addition to the career vs. family dilemma, there are other reasons why excellent female lawyers who would have liked to progress further in their careers have felt been unable to do so.

Male dominance and outdated organisational culture

One of the main barriers to female career advancement is the ingrained values and mindset of senior partners. Despite admirable exceptions, there is, generally, little impetus for change.

As mentioned in a previous blog, until now, firms have resisted modern management practices such as flexible working. New working methods are critical in helping women to secure senior roles. In 2015, The Executive Coaching Consultancy found that than two-thirds of female lawyers would leave their job for a firm with an identical position but which offered flexible working.

While lawyers are slowly adopting modern ways of working, a face-time culture has led to many women feeling that working flexibly or on a part-time basis, will result in them being perceived as less serious about their careers than colleagues working full-time. It’s true, firms are often unwilling to offer partnership to employees working part-time or flexibly. Men, who are less likely to work part-time, are twice as likely to be promoted to partnership and three times as likely to be made equity partners.

What’s more, it can be tricky to persuade demanding clients to adapt to a reduced schedule of availability, so solicitors who do manage to work part-time often end up working full-time hours for half the pay.

There is an absence of female role models

Because there are so few women in senior positions, there aren’t enough role models to inspire and mentor young lawyers. There’s also a lack of female partners demonstrating so-called feminine characteristics; many of those who enter partnership display traditional masculine behaviours like exuberance and over-confidence. This can mean that some aspiring partners feel that if they are to be considered for promotion, they cannot be their authentic, capable, feminine selves.

Female lawyers are forced to choose

The difficult work-life balance and long hours associated with the legal profession disadvantage those with family responsibilities. Women who take a maternity break can face significant obstacles when they return to work and sometimes fail to get their careers back on track.

Consequently, many decide not to make a long-term commitment to the law, especially if having a family becomes a more important consideration. The rate of practising female solicitors drops sharply from 60% to 40% after the age of 35, as many struggle to maintain their career alongside parenting or other personal responsibilities.

In contrast, the decline in practising men remains gradual right up to retirement. Some firms explain the lack of women in senior positions due to the smaller pool from which they can draw candidates.

Women are less likely to aggressively pursue partnership

Many female lawyers show no interest in pursuing a senior role, and some rule out partnership completely early on in their careers. Interestingly, only a third of women lawyers seek a job in senior management or partnership, compared to just under two-thirds of women bankers.

Women are drawn to in-house positions

More and more women choose to work in-house, where flexible working is more prevalent. In-house roles can offer lawyers more predictable working hours and generally, a better work-life balance. Because legal counsel teams are usually smaller, in-house lawyers are often better-supported and their achievements more likely to be recognised than in private practice.

Arguments for gender parity

Diversity is not only important to ensure that female lawyers reach their potential, there are other reasons why gender parity is essential within the profession.

Clients are driving diversity

Clients across all sectors are calling for diversity and expect the law firms they instruct to be equally invested in ensuring that their businesses represent all sections of society. Earlier this year, the general counsel at HP in the United States, threatened to withhold up to 10% of costs invoiced by external law firms that fail to meet their minimum gender diversity requirements.

Diversity makes business sense

Gender parity makes the sector, and business generally, as competitive as possible. When women hold senior leadership positions, law firms have increased profitability, better return on investment and are more likely to embrace innovation.

How diversity can be achieved

For gender parity to be achieved within the legal sector, firms need to work together to change the way female colleagues are encouraged and supported. So too must outdated perceptions of women entrenched within some sections of the profession be eliminated; but how can we take steps towards making the profession a level playing field?

By promoting a supportive culture

By 2020, millennials will make up half of the global workforce. Lawyers in this age group have much to say about how they want to work. As well as seeking a good work-life balance and greater use of technology to enable flexible working, they also value an attentive management style and frequent feedback from a supervisor invested in their professional development.

Unfortunately, many enthusiastic young female lawyers enter the profession with high expectations and have their ambitions stifled when they quickly realise that it may not be as easy as they thought to achieve their goal of partnership. It’s important that firms promote a supportive working culture, encourage all their female employees and help them to feel empowered to aspire to senior positions.

By introducing widespread flexible working patterns

The traditional model of continuing from being admitted to The Roll to partnership or leaving the profession early on is simply not compatible with women today. In a survey of 800 women solicitors conducted by King’s College London and the Association of Women Solicitors, 96% said they wanted a career that allowed to incorporate their work into their personal and family life.

Flexible working is inevitably more valuable for women because they still have most of the responsibility of childcare. While many firms overlook those who work part-time when selecting suitable candidates for partnership, by committing to considering these equally competent female employees when it comes to promotion, firms could secure positive changes.

Fortunately, paternity leave is becoming increasingly tolerated, if not acceptable. Fathers taking time off to help in the early weeks or months of their child’s birth can help to ensure that their partners or spouses don’t lose career momentum.

What’s already being done?

Several firms have already launched initiatives to improve diversity. For many City firms, addressing the lack of women in senior positions has become a strategic priority. Clyde & Co. and Berwin Leighton Paisner have achieved a 30% female partner promotion rate since 2008 and almost half of partner promotions at Irwin Mitchell in the same period have been women. Other firms have also set gender diversity targets; both Pinsent Masons and Ashurst aim to have women taking up at least a quarter of partnership and management positions by 2018.


In keeping with the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, ‘Press for Progress’, it is essential that lawyers lead the way and take action to encourage more women to reach their potential.

It’s equally important that women realise that the traditional obstacles of childcare and historical perceived male dominance need no longer stand in their way of achieving their partnership goal. By thinking about how they want to balance work, life and family, female lawyers can take control of their own choices to make sure that they aren’t edged out of the workplace. Women bring a distinctive set of skills to the profession increasingly recognised by the people who matter most to every law firm, their clients.

Balancing gender parity against a culture of meritocracy and achievement will ensure that the very best talent, both male and female is recognised and rewarded, securing your firm’s success in a competitive and ever-changing legal marketplace.

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