This latest survey on gender diversity indicates a long road ahead for equality in the law.
There are flocks of aspiring female solicitors in the UK: the latest Law Society statistics show that that 62.4% of students accepted onto LLB courses in England and Wales in 2012 were women, as were 63.4% of those enrolled with the SRA in 2012/13 (a requisite step for undertaking the Legal Practice Course). But the Student Guide’s 2014 survey of diversity across the country's leading commercial law firms doesn't paint a particularly promising picture for these would-be solicitors.
Only two of the 100-plus firms we surveyed have a partnership of more than 50% women.
While female solicitors are edging their way towards parity and proportionality at the lower levels of the profession, they remain severely underrepresented at the higher ones: only two of the 100-plus firms we surveyed have a partnership comprised of at least 50% women (Leigh Day and Kingsley Napley); meanwhile, more than three-quarters of surveyed firms have a partnership featuring less than 30% women. Women account for less than 7% of the partnership at five firms on our list – Cleary, CMS, Curtis, Edwards Wildman and Thomas Cooper – while the average percentage of female partners across the firms in our survey is just 24%.
Here’s a closer look at which firms do best at hiring and promoting women, and what firms are doing to change. Be sure to check out our article 'What's holding women back?' for a deeper look into the factors contributing to the underrepresentation of women at the top.
We asked the firms we surveyed to provide the percentage of women featured in their trainee, associate and partner groups. We then regrouped the data according to the type of law firm and calculated the average for each, revealing how each type of firm performs at hiring, retaining and promoting women.
Average percentage of female solicitors by level and type of firm
|Magic circle firms
|Other London firms
This is the first time we've collected data on gender diversity at the trainee level. Female trainees on average comprise 57.1% of incoming intakes at the firms we surveyed (the vast majority of which are primarily commercial and corporate entities). This figure is almost the same at the associate level, where it's 57.2% women across the board. Law Society stats show that 61.5% of all training contracts awarded in England and Wales in 2012/13 went to women, suggesting women have a slightly smaller chance of obtaining a training contract at leading corporate/commercial firms like the ones covered in our research.
Female lawyers have made up over 50% of new entrants to the profession since 1993, but it's clear they're still not progressing to the highest roles.
The dramatic dip of female solicitors to an average of 24% at the partner level, as shown in our survey, is especially telling. According to Law Society data, female lawyers have made up over 50% of new entrants to the profession since 1993, but it's clear they're still not progressing to the highest roles – a cyclical issue as it means they aren't getting an equal say in the stake-holding upper echelons that make the very decision of who to promote.
Crunching the numbers
Magic circle firms often make showy attempts at promoting women, with Linklaters even setting targets for gender diversity at the management level, but the results remain to be seen: as our stats show, these firms currently lag behind other London and regional/national outfits when it comes to the proportion of women in their senior ranks, with an average of 18.8% female partners between them – a figure that trails significantly behind the 25.1% percentage other London firms achieve on average.
The magic circle also lags at the lower levels, with a smaller average proportion of female trainees and associates than any other type of firm (48.6% and 47% respectively). Slaughter and May is at the bottom of the pack on the trainee front, with just 39% women here, while Freshfields holds that place on the associate front, with just 45% women.
We included 20 American-headquartered firms in London in our survey, and together these have the lowest number of women at the partnership level, with the average proportion of female partners across these outfits ringing in at just 17.5%. In fact, US firms account for 11 of the 20 lowest-scoring firms in our whole survey. It's important to note that Curtis' London office only has one partner in total, meaning this figure was always going be an all-or-nothing one; Edwards Wildman, however, has 26 partners, so that 4% figure means that only one of them is a woman.
US firms account for 11 of the 20 lowest-scoring firms in our whole survey
When a firm builds an overseas network, it often relies on expat partners to build the practice. This goes some way in explaining the underwhelming numbers above: fewer women than men across the pond have historically entered the legal profession full stop, let alone become partners. (According to the American Bar Association, around 47% of law school graduates in the US in 2012/12 were women.) Still, recent NALP data shows that women have comprised just under half of all summer associates in the US in the past five years, and close to half of all associates in 2013, so it's promoting rather than hiring that appears to be the issue in recent years.
On the plus side, US firms in London manage on average to inch over the 50% women mark at both the trainee and associate level. Paul Hastings is highest on the trainee front, with women comprising 75% of its trainees, while Jones Day leads the pack in the associate ranks, where women account for 67% of the total.
Other London firms
It’s a tale of two cities in this group, which houses the greatest degree of variation. On one hand, as the chart above illustrates, the 44 London firms included in our survey together achieve the second-highest averages when it comes to the proportion of women across the trainee, associate and partner levels (losing out to the regional/national firms we surveyed in all three categories). Both of the firms in our survey that have a partnership comprising at least 50% women – Leigh Day (63.3%) and Kingsley Napley(50%) – are London firms. These two have majority women at the trainee and associate levels too: 69.5% and 81.5% respectively for Leigh Day, and 80% and 87% for Kingsley Napley.
Most of the firms that score highly have practices dominated by areas like family law, employment and social welfare
Other London outfits helping pull up the averages include Winckworth Sherwood (which has a partnership of 42% women), Boodle Hatfield (44%) and Peters & Peters (37.5%); all three also have majority female associate ranks, and the latter two have majority female trainee ranks too. It's important to point out that most of the firms that score highly on the partnership front (Kingsley, Leigh Day, Winckworth) have practices dominated by areas like family law, employment and social welfare – ones in which women are historically overrepresented and that fall on the lower end of the payscale, as a 2013 Legal Services Board report points out.
This contrasts starkly against the London firms on our survey that have commercial practices focused on corporate, banking and energy – historically male-dominated (and highly paid) areas of law. Domestic City firms with big commercial practices account for five of the top ten lowest-scoring firms on our whole survey, with CMS coming in third to last, with a partnership comprising just 5.1% women. (CMS also has a particularly low proportion of women in its trainee and associate ranks, which are respectively 31% and 20% female.) As it happens, the 25.1% average that London firms collectively score for proportion of female partners relies quite heavily on the numbers from female-majority firms like the ones listed above: 26 of the 44 on our list actually have proportions that fall below that percentage.
It's little surprise that some of the London firms with the lowest proportions of female partners have a big shipping contingent: Thomas Cooper's partnership is 6.5% female, while Holman Fenwick Willan's is 14% and Ince & Co's is 16%. The maritime sector has historically been something of a boys' club, and year on year our trainee sources at these firms tell us the working culture in their respective shipping departments is informed by this fact.
Regional and national firms
Our findings show that female solicitors on average fare best outside the capital. The 38 regional and national firms we surveyed had the highest proportions of women at all three levels, managing an average of 64.5% at the trainee level, and 60.7% and 26% respectively at the associate and partnership levels.
A good 15 of these firms have partnerships that exceed that 26% mark, and only six fall below the 20% mark, though of course these figures still expose a huge drop-off rate for women who are recruited and retained at regional and national firms but not ultimately promoted to the top jobs.
How is the picture changing?
As our survey shows, the top ranks of the vast majority of UK law firms are still a man's world, and change isn’t keeping pace with the numbers of women joining the profession.
There's evidence to suggest that once the legal profession reaches a tipping point – that is, once there's a critical mass of women at the top – a healthy gender balance will become a self-perpetuating phenomenon as women in management act as role models for women further down the pecking order, changing attitudes regarding female leaders and lobbying for policies that make it easier for other women to get ahead.
Helena Morrissey – founder of 30% Club, which strives to improve the gender imbalance across the business world – believes that 30% is the magic number that will open the floodgates. Her organisation has had a good deal of success convincing the big players that this is a doable goal: all five magic circle firms, plus a slew of City and national firms, have signed on as members.
Change isn’t keeping pace with the numbers of women joining the profession.
Some of these firms are focusing their attention on women’s networking groups and targeted training schemes. Others – including Pinsent Masons, Ashurst and Herbert Smith Freehills – are looking to heat up the current glacial pace of change by setting concrete targets for their management demographics. Linklaters aims to hit a 30% female partnership by 2018, while Eversheds is striving for this goal by 2020. The most recent round of partnership promotions across the magic circle suggests some modest progress there: women accounted for four of seven new partners made up in London at Clifford Chance and Linklaters in 2014, and three of seven at Slaughter and May. That said, only one of Allen & Overy's five new London partners was a women, and none of Freshfields' five were.
In today's economic climate, UK firms of all shapes and sizes need the best lawyers they can get to survive increasingly cost-conscious clients, legal aid cuts and threats from increasingly business-oriented competitors. Failing to promote talented women just doesn't make sense, ethically or commercially.
It's up to law firms to turn the hot air of the past into winds of change.