Despite diversity initiatives being more commonplace than ever before, law firms are struggling to make long-term careers attractive to women. Female lawyers still earn less, leave firms sooner and are less likely to make partner compared to men.
Some progress is happening, but slowly; whereas once entry–level recruitment was the issue, retention has emerged as a much bigger problem.
Retention is the problem
Representation at partner–level for women has indeed improved, but according to a Chambers report, the retention gap (the percentage difference between female partners and female trainees) has remained flat over the last six years. This suggests that firms are solving the diversity problem by hiring more women as graduates instead of working to change the working cultures that cause attrition.
Women trainees are more likely to intend to leave their firm within the first two years and men are more likely to intend to make partner. There are three reasons why this might be the case: a lack of role models, old-fashioned working structures and implicit bias.
A lack of role models
Trainees that don’t identify personally with leadership are unlikely to feel as entitled to leadership roles as those who are able to see themselves in managing partners. If a firm doesn’t have many women in leadership, junior lawyers are less likely to believe that they have a chance of attaining senior roles and may decide to leave for a more progressive employer.
Old-fashioned working structures
Many law firms remain committed to a traditional and inflexible business model which is incompatible with contemporary attitudes to family life and work-life balance. Currently, personal ownership and building and maintaining relationships with clients are fundamental to career progression, which makes it tricky for women who might take a career break to start a family.
Implicit bias is characterised by very subtle preferential treatment of one type of person over another. In the law, relationships are very important and as a result, implicit bias happens often causing the opportunities and career paths for female and male lawyers to go in a different direction.
Even though diversity and inclusion training is offered at firms nowadays, it fails to combat implicit bias and influences outside of the workforce have a stronger impact and reinforce these behaviours.
A 2020 survey, also by Chambers, found that on the whole, women find their day-to-day jobs more rewarding and are happier than men, suggesting the law firms are working hard to make sure female solicitors have a positive experience at work. The fact that they’re choosing to leave the profession earlier than men demonstrates the strength of the three factors outlined above.
The effect of lockdown
Although the last 12 months have been difficult for all of us, the COVID pandemic and lockdown may have been positive in terms of gender equality. Firms have been forced to function remotely and remote working has become the status quo for the majority of lawyers. Flexible working is no longer the career compromise it used to be; as most lawyers have successfully worked from home over the last 12 months it’s proven that flexibility is possible, making it easier to balance parenting and other family commitments with the law.
While there is still a long way to go until there is gender parity across the legal sector, there are glimpses of hope. Law firms that continue to be inclusive by offering flexible and home working post-pandemic will undoubtedly be rewarded and will attract female talent, which in turn may help to close the retention gap.