Breaking with the past - Freshfields' landmark choice for its next senior partner

Appointment of Georgia Dawson promises to energise magic circle firm's diversity drive

The unveiling by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer of its new partners in the spring made for uncomfortable reading when measured against the firm’s commitment to improve gender diversity.

Just four of the 21 appointees were women ­– 19% of the cohort. While senior partner Edward Braham fulfilled the traditional role of publicly congratulating the new partners on their undoubted achievements, the firm also felt it necessary to restate its commitment to diversity and inclusion.

“We know that diverse teams perform better, to the benefit of our clients and the firm,” it said in a statement, before highlighting the progress it had made in certain areas.

In fact, the figure of 19% was a slight improvement on the overall proportion of women partners at the magic circle firm, which stood at 17% last year, according to research by The Financial Times, up from 16% in 2018.

It didn’t take a statistician to calculate that, if the firm was making progress, it wasn’t showing up in an important metric.

It was against this background that partners set about choosing their next senior partner, settling upon Asia managing partner Georgia Dawson, who assumes the role at the start of next year alongside a revamped team of three co-managing partners.

In so doing they secured an undoubted landmark, making her the first woman to lead a magic circle UK firm

Countless research studies have shown that the presence of role models and mentors are a crucial ingredient of a successful diversity programme.

On that level, the evidence suggests that Dawson’s appointment will make a difference, notwithstanding the fact that the firm can point to several other senior women leaders, including London managing partner Claire Wills and China chair Teresa Ko.

But it also suggests a deeper cultural shift within a firm whose diversity record lays it open to suggestions an 'old boys club' mentality still lingers, despite its drive to improve its record.

One way of breaking down a club, is to recruit from outside that network. And while it would be too much to ask a partnership to recruit a complete outsider, Freshfields has pushed the boat out somewhat.

Dawson started her career in Australia with Freehills before joining Freshfields as an associate, spending some time in London before making Hong Kong and Singapore her base.

It is not the career path of your average magic circle law firm leader and suggests that the firm has made a concerted effort to break with the past by looking well beyond its London base for its next leader.

With expectations suitably raised, Dawson – who has gained recognition for her commitment to diversity – will no doubt be keen to step up Freshfields' game. Expect it to follow Baker McKenzie and Clifford Chance, among other firms, in publishing detailed diversity targets.

One of Dawson’s duties next year will be to congratulate the next cohort of new partners on their achievements. It will be interesting to see whether she is also able to celebrate greater evidence of progress towards achieving the firm’s diversity and inclusion ambitions.

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