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A man's world- why there aren't more female partners in the legal industry

Statistics show that the percentage of women at Partner level within the UK legal market currently stands at 17.6 per cent. When considering that this figure sat at 16 per cent in 2006, it raises some significant questions about the structure of senior management in the legal sector.

According to the Guardian, equal numbers of women and men enter the legal profession. The obvious question stands; why is it that so few are able to reach a position in equity partnership? Is this the result of underlying sexism or are there other matters at hand?

Today, firms have to demonstrate commitment to diversity initiatives, though the figures above still do not indicate a significant amount of change. Previous reports suggest that women are dropping out of the legal profession as a result of the “all or nothing” culture, unable to commit to an 80 hour week. For many women in the industry, family comes first.

The inflexibility of working hours and location play a crucial role in the imbalance. In most law firms in the UK, there is no route to partnership for lawyers who work part time and there is relatively little opportunity for lawyers to work from home; at least for those who want to climb the corporate ladder all the way to the top.

Even for those who have managed to secure the ever elusive partnership, it seems that only one attitude will suffice- if you can’t beat them, join them. But what’s so bad about that?

A part time lawyer - whether they are male or female - can still make an outstanding contribution to their practice no matter what their working hours or location. However, one must question whether a part-time Partner of either gender would be able to keep up with the demands of the job. Furthermore, how will a law firm be able to run effectively if the Partners are not on hand to address the needs of the business? It stands to reason that other full-time Partners would have to pick up some of the slack.

In an effort to address the prevalent imbalance in the industry, many law firms have signed up to the 30% Club which aims to get more women onto boards of legal practices.

This initiative, combined with quotas that are likely to spring up over the next few years, has already received much criticism. We have to question whether the plans for quotas encourage positive discrimination; is it fair that a person may be passed up for partnerships in favour of someone less capable for the sole purpose of balancing gender inequality?

But if quotas aren’t the answer, how can we find a balance between a position in partnership and family life? How can the gender imbalance be levelled out in a way that is fair for both women and men without disrupting the day-to-day running of law firms?

It appears that various issues were overlooked - or perhaps ignored - at the outset.

Childcare tax benefits need to be looked at in serious detail if women are to be more inclined to return to work after maternity leave.

In addition, it has been suggested that law firms have been somewhat lacking in relation to the development of women. Rather than pushing them to the top level in order to improve statistics, greater steps need to be taken earlier on to improve their skills by mentoring them and encouraging them to go further.

Employers need to cast the net a bit further when looking for new staff members. The right women are out there; all it takes is a bit more effort.

Unless the underlying issues are rectified, it may be a long time before women stop banging their heads against the partnership ‘glass ceiling’.


By: Samantha Tomlinson