It is a question that thousands of lawyers have faced for decades: can you be a mother and still make parther?
Last year, just over half of entrants to law school in the US were women; in Britain, it was two-thirds.
Yet in 2018 women made up just 19 per cent of equity partners in British law firms, ac- cording to PwC, the consultancy, while a McKinsey study from 2017 showed the same figure.
The generally accepted is- sue is the choice many women face between partnership — on call 24/7 and under pressure to generate business — or starting a family.
At the same time, says David Wilkins, director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School, there are limited equity partnership positions as many firms look to cut costs.
These factors combine to have “a disproportionate impact on women because they still bear the majority burden of childcare and child raising, and the sole burden of child bearing,” he says.
Yet increasingly those campaigning for greater diversity in the legal profession say it is wrong to accept this as inevitable and are pressing firms to find solutions.
While overt sexual discrimination is often challenged, unconscious bias and lazy assumptions are also holding women back, says Farmida Bi, chair at Norton Rose Fulbright.
For example, partners looking to build a team to work on a deal may assume a mother will not want a demanding client calling at 2am, or to travel frequently for work.
These assumptions are not made about fathers. Firms seeking to improve diversity at the top need to make alterations to their processes, says Ms Bi.
The problem is exacerbated by pressure to bring work into the firm, says Sarah Chilton, a partner at CM Murray, which specializes in partnership and employment law.
“In professional services generally there is a feeling that you have to justify your existence.
When it comes to originations and billings, is someone being denied the opportunity to build that up because the person distributing work has a conscious or unconscious bias against them?” Charting a route back to work Because the traditional law firm model is a constant move towards “up or out” — partner- ship for those who make the grade, the exit for those who do not — firms need to identify talented associates early to stop them self-selecting “out” if they plan for children, says Melinda Wallman, partner at recruitment company Mlegal. Ms Wallman is co-founded Reignite Academy, a programme that helps City lawyers return after a career break. “They need to say, ‘we want you to stay and make partner, and if you want to have a family, we want to be the firm you come back to’,” she says.
Firms serious about preventing women from falling behind while they are on maternity or family leave should also implement more regulated staffing and client management systems to stop the relationships with important clients being entrusted solely to men, she adds.
It is also important “not to forget people exist while they are on maternity leave”, says Ms Chilton. “Invite them to lunches and events, allow them to keep up their contacts.
Writing articles is something easy to offer someone on maternity leave — they can do that without leaving the house and . . . it keeps their name in the market.”
More fundamentally, Ms Wallman questions the idea that partners need to be permanently on call. “Do you need to be full- time, 24/7 to be a successful law
firm partner?” she asks. “We need to make it possible to do these roles on less…it is important for women but also for the next generation.” Law firms like to talk about flexible working to suit incoming generations who demand a greater flexibility and work-life balance from their employers. But they are “particularly bad” at defining the partner’s role in new ways, says Ms Chilton.
“They think a partner has to be a rainmaker,” she says, “but they could contribute to the partnership by taking on major management roles, or some departmental head roles.”
Is it time for quotas? In 2011 the US-based Women in Law Empowerment Forum launched a “gold standard” award for firms that hit gender diversity targets.
Firms need a minimum of 20 per cent female equity partners, plus various other criteria, to get that rating. Betiayn Tursi, co- founder and chair of the forum, says targets need to be “aspirational” and realistic.
“Fifty per cent is a false narrative,” she says. Given that 40 years ago most law firms might have one or two female partners, it is important to play the long game, she adds.
The forum introduced its gold standard to the UK this year.
For Dana Denis-Smith, founder of the First 100 Years project, which promotes the history of women in the law, self-imposed targets have failed and change needs to be forced through.
In February, she called for quotas for the number of women at equity partnership and management level.
Only that way, she argued, could women break through the “incredibly rigid, inflexible and artificial places” that were law firm offices.
That makes many female lawyers uneasy, worried that clients will assume they have been thrust into roles to make the statistics look good.
Ms Denis-Smith dismisses this fear: “Women forget that they’re really good. I’ve never heard of a balanced or diverse partnership underperforming.” Ms Chilton agrees.
“The statistics are so awful that quotas are not a bad thing,” she says. “Having quotas would encourage firms to make sure females have achieved what they need to achieve to make partnership.”
Targets of 20-25 per cent are “depressing”, adds Ms Chilton. “If you only have a target of 25 per cent, you’re never going to exceed it, and it is so out of kilter with the number of associates.”
Most leading firms have a roughly 50:50 gender split at associate level, or a slight female majority. That makes the partnership statistics all the more shocking.
Clients have a role to play In-house general counsel and clients also have a role to play in pressuring firms they work with to increase diversity at the top, says Ms Wallman.
When clients demand diverse partnerships in order to secure contracts as dozens of general counsels have recently called for in open letters firms are forced to priorities the issue.
This works both ways, how- ever. Those who until now have expected to be able to reach lawyers at any time of day or night need an understanding of what requests are urgent and what can wait until morning.
Ms Denis-Smith has also criticised the position of salaried partner — a lawyer with the title of partner but without a share in the firm’s profits or a say in how it is run. That, she says, is merely to make the partnership figures looks better.
“The whole business model needs to be opened up,” she says. Ultimately, having diversity at the top is essential for inspiring the next generation, especially in a time when firms are competing with in-house legal departments or smaller firms who can offer fulfilling careers without the punishing hours. “The worst thing for diversity is to have marginal partners,” says Prof Wilkins. “Make your women and minorities super- stars so that younger people can look at them and say ‘I can succeed’.”