Women in Law Part 1 – Leadership

29 Jul 2016

Women in Law – Part 1

Our Female Leaders

It is 2016, roughly 5 years on from when widespread targets were introduced to the business community to increase the number of women in the boardroom. In 2011, only 12.5% of FTSE 100 directorships were held by women, thus targets aimed to double this figure by 2015. This target has so far been exceeded with female representation standing at 26% [2] and a new target is being driven by Lord Mervyn Davies which calls for a third of boardroom positions to be occupied by women by 2020 [1].

Initiatives such as this create hope that society is changing for the better, however it is a little more complicated than simply introducing a target. Dame Linda Dobbs DBE (a former high court judge) highlights that someone  has actually got to take responsibility for making these changes in each organisation [2].  Janet Legrad (the first woman to be elected to the board at DLA Piper) agrees, saying that it will take effort from companies to bring about the structural changes that will shift the status quo [4].

In the legal market for example, although many firms have pledged their commitment to improving their gender diversity, women still only hold 19% of partnership positions in the top 20 UK law firms. Juxtaposing this is the fact that for the past 20 years, women have made up 60% of new entrants to the legal market [3]. So why are women not reaching the top in law firms?

This series of articles aims to discuss gender equality in law firm culture, with Part 1 focusing on leadership at present. Who are our women leaders and why is there a shortage?

Currently, there are still only 7 women who hold senior management positions in the top 50 UK firms, these are: Penelope Warne, senior partner at CMS Cameron McKenner; Sonya Leydecker, CEO at Herbert Smith Freehills; Lisa Mayhew, managing partner at Berwin Leighton Paisner; Sharon White, CEO at Stephenson Harwood; Margaret Robertson, managing director at Withers; Jennie Gubbins, senior partner at Trowers & Hamlins and Claire Rowe, CEO at Shoosmiths [3]. There were 8 but Monica Burch, Senior Partner at Addleshaw Goddard was replaced by Charles Penny as of May 2016 [5].

These women have demonstrated that female lawyers can successfully run law firms, yet there still has never been a female leader at the London-based magic circle law firms: Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters, and Slaughter and May. A partner from Slaughter & May told Legal Week that it’s not because the female partners are not able, it is simply because they do not want the job. This was concurred by a female partner at Allen & Overy who said it is likely that female partners feel they are already too busy and they just don’t aspire to be in the spotlight [6]. This year, female partner Aedamar Comiskey put herself forward for the Senior Partner role at Linklaters. Although she ultimately lost [9], the legal market reacted entirely positively with the legal press saying that by doing this, she has set Linklaters apart from the other magic circle firms, with Linklaters being the front runner for getting a woman into it’s senior management team [8].

However, ultimately, there are still more male partners to choose from for leadership positions than women. Within Slaughter & May for example, as of March 2016 there were only 24 female partners compared to 91 male [7].

Currently businesses are better equipped for men because they are the majority and whether we are aware of it or not, people like people who remind them of themselves. This is called ‘Unconscious Bias’ and has become a key focus point in big businesses [10]. Whether you are a man or a women, unconscious gender bias does exist and for the most part this works against women because the majority of business leaders are men. This becomes undeniable when you look at the other end of the spectrum, for example reviewing Kingsley Napley, a firm that uniquely has female senior and managing partners, 78% of qualified lawyers in the firm are women. They are in fact prioritising attracting male talent. Therefore, gender bias is not unique to women, but they are more afflicted because there are more men at the top [3].

The fact that there are far fewer women at the top than men attracts arguments around merit of individuals, as well as fulfilling quotas and how long someone has been at the firm. Plus there is the age-old issue of women having to take time off when they have children, which can hinder a woman’s career (depending on her firm and personal circumstances [14]). We know that it is not the industry itself that struggles to attract women (due to the high number of female entries), it is more likely an issue of talent retention. A firm needs to provide enough incentive and supportive structures which encourage women back to work after taking maternity leave [11].

Yet, the traditional model of the woman taking time off work to take care of her children is changing. Current senior women may say that they got to where they are because they had a supportive partner who took over the childcare, allowing them to commit 120% of their time to their work. However, this model is not sustainable anymore. The long hours culture is fading as technology advances and now more women feel empowered enough to admit that they want to pursue their careers alongside their husbands/partners and both men and women want to have more equal involvement in their children’s upbringing [4]. Flexible working for both males and females is one solution that law firms can consider. If women know that now they don’t have to choose between family and career, the likely result is that firms retain more of their female talent [1].

However, it may be more complicated than that, some have suggested that the competitive nature of graduates and trainees to get into the best firms may not be reflective of true career ambition, that actually many want to start at the top because they know that it gives them easier options to step down as well as up [11].

Either way, Figure 1 [12] displays an obvious problem in progressing women from associate to partner (Click graph to enlarge).Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 17.14.26

Withers (as led by Margaret Robertson) is perhaps one of the most progressive firms for gender equality with women making up 62% of it’s associates and 45% of it’s partners. Irwin Mitchell has the highest percentage of female associates (74%) yet only 34% of it’s partnership are women. Similarly 67% of Mills & Reeve associates are women yet only 24% of it’s partners are females. Cleary Gottlieb are struggling massively with only 37% of it’s associates and a measly 5% of it’s partnership being women [12].

Unfortunately this issue does not look to be improving based on current efforts. The latest partnership promotion figures from 2016, published on the 26th July in Legal Week, show the number of women promoted in the top 10 UK firms has fallen by 26% compared to 2015’s figures. Firms who fall in the top 11-30 bracket have managed to keep female promotions at a similar level to 2015. Only a handful of firms managed to increase their female partnership promotions this year, including Clyde & Co and BLP. These results clearly show that despite the focus on gender equality in the legal sector, firms are still struggling to nurture a sustainable pipeline of female talent [13].

Based on this, Part 2 of the Women in Law series will focus on the female ‘Rising Stars.’ The ‘Rising Stars’ have the potential to provide a pipeline of female talent, however so far this is not being achieved. Part 2 will look at why this is as well as potential methods for nurturing the ‘Rising Stars’ and thus the female leaders of tomorrow.


  1. http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/business/women-need-chance-show-how-11056950?ptnr_rid=260676&icid=EM_MEN_Nletter_Business_largeteaser_Image_Story1
  2. http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/law/former-senior-judge-urges-caution-over-quotas/5054411.article
  3. http://www.thelawyer.com/issues/tl-9-march-2015/where-are-the-women-law-firm-leaders/
  4. http://blogs.lexisnexis.co.uk/futureoflaw/2016/02/women-in-law-what-needs-to-change/
  5. https://www.addleshawgoddard.com/en/news/2016/ag-elects-charles-penney-as-senior-partner/
  6. http://www.legalweek.com/sites/legalweek/2015/12/16/why-has-there-never-been-a-female-leader-of-a-magic-circle-law-firm/
  7. http://www.thelawyer.com/slaughters-adds-ten-partners-in-london-including-just-one-woman/
  8. http://www.thelawyer.com/will-linklaters-be-the-first-magic-circle-firm-with-a-female-boss/
  9. http://www.legalweek.com/sites/jamesbooth/2016/05/23/charlie-jacobs-wins-linklaters-senior-partner-election/
  10. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-politics/10078243/Law-firms-have-unconscious-bias-that-stops-women-from-getting-promoted-says-senior-City-lawyer.html
  11. http://l2b.thelawyer.com/issues/l2b-winter-2012/lost-leaders-why-dont-more-women-make-it-to-the-top/
  12. http://www.legalcheek.com/the-legal-cheek-top-firms-most-list/
  13. http://www.legalweek.com/sites/legalweek/2016/07/26/women-fall-by-the-wayside-in-2016-partner-promotion-round/
  14. https://www.theguardian.com/law/2011/apr/28/barristers-solicitors