Women lawyers are pouring out of top law schools and into the legal profession in large numbers, but their representation around equity partnership tables has hardly improved in 20 years. Law firms need to do more to keep quality female talent
The Global Legal Post reported last autumn on a US survey from the National Association of Women Lawyers highlighting the difficult path female lawyers face en route to partnership.
The survey studied the career paths of women from entry level to equity partnership. Its researchers noted that ‘disappointingly few’ women reach equity partnership and that those that do ‘face significant career challenges’. The percentage of female equity partners (accounting for barely 15 per cent of at typical large US firms) has not increased in more than 20 years, despite substantial numbers of women graduating from the top US law schools.
Although the report related to a survey of more than 100 of the top US firms, the survey undoubtedly struck a chord with many female lawyers -- partners and associates alike -- elsewhere in global legal practice. For example, in the UK, many law firms over recent years have developed and repeatedly expressed support in the legal press for gender equality initiatives aimed at improving the retention of female talent, not least by instituting flexible or part-time working schemes, and, in certain cases, alternatives to the partnership track.
However, there may be a growing complacency that these issues have now been addressed and problems are largely historic, particularly regarding the impact of maternity leave and childcare on the careers of female lawyers. There may even be a sense of fatigue in the legal profession in confronting these issues head on, especially when there are other, potentially wider-reaching discrimination issues currently at the fore, such as the handling of compulsory partner retirement ages.
But the reality is that while there are several law firms that support and encourage their female lawyers -- including during and following maternity absences -- many still discriminate (consciously or otherwise) against their pregnant lawyers and those female lawyers with primary childcare responsibilities. Their female-friendly marketing is often public lip service to an issue that actually requires a fundamental re-think of how those firms approach in practice the retention of female lawyers and the support offered to them.
Such a re-think would include, for example, a review of approaches to profit-sharing arrangements during maternity leave, to requests for childcare-friendly working arrangements on return from maternity leave, to support of lawyers’ reintegration into the practice on return and to allowing time to re-build a practice, client relationships and personal and team billings post-maternity leave. This applies both at senior and junior partner levels and also to female associates.
Partnership agreements frequently contain poorly drafted profit sharing arrangements relating to part-time working or maternity/pregnancy-related issues, or on occasion, contain no such provisions at all. The silence on such critical issues leads to confusion over entitlements and often makes female lawyers feel undervalued and a ‘problem’ if they try to address these issues before taking maternity leave.
Unfortunately, distressed female partner maternity returners still regularly seek advice and support on their unlawful treatment by their firms. Examples include female partners who take two periods of maternity leave within a three to five-year period being more affected by financial-based exit selection criteria than their male peers (even in situations where we have seen the female equity partner achieving an annual target or the pro-rata equivalent). Or, firms failing to allow female equity partners properly to re-build their practices after maternity leave and being shown the door a few weeks after returning.
The problems are not limited to partners. Prior to partnership, top billing associates who have excelled in their financial contribution to their firm before taking maternity leave are frequently side-lined on return, either through subtle ostracising (for example, not being involved in pitches or given access to heavy-weight clients, with the frequent assumption that they would not want to be involved in the perceived heavier work-load, given their part-time or flexible working arrangements). In some firms the treatment is more blatant and female lawyers have been asked to leave before their return from maternity absence, in moves subtly disguised as internal ‘restructurings’ of their practice areas.
Undoubtedly, firms exist that are doing their part; many have put in place action plans to address the gender balance at partnership level, having implemented coaching and mentoring schemes for maternity returners (and female lawyers generally). These firms are trying to take positive steps to make the cultural shift in gender diversity. But such structures and plans that have been put in place in the past three to five years will take time to show any real effect.
The US researchers say in the conclusion to their survey that they hope the results will spark ‘constructive dialogue’ on these important topics. Such dialogue is also needed elsewhere, and especially in the UK, but arguably more is required. A fundamental shift in law firm practices is required, by way of a top-down approach led by management (both in a firm’s marketing material and in reality), with an ideal starting point being a re-drafting and thorough review of maternity provisions in partnership agreements.
Law firms are typically slow to react to change, but if there is any hope for the gender balance in partnerships over the next decade, such steps need to be taken soon.