Diversity 2021: 5 things the data reveals about women in law

Jules Quinn and Elysia-Elena Stellakis assess the extent to which law firm efforts to improve gender diversity are showing through in the latest demographics
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The annual Diversity of the Judiciary report was published by the UK government in mid-July. The reported data makes for some interesting and astute reading on how women are progressing in the legal profession.

We know that many firms have made monumental investments in trying to improve the representation of women during the last two decades. We see the headline statistics and maybe even tropes wheeled out …women make up the majority of solicitors…33% of partners are women…a firm’s 'first' female managing partner/chair/board member/practice head.

And yet, how much of this effort has generated genuine change?

Well, the full reported data can be found in the report. And while it is worth stressing some of the figures have noticeable unreported numbers that increase the margins of error, here are five things the statistics reveal about gender diversity (the report’s language) in the legal profession.

The growth in female solicitor numbers since 2017 dwarfs that of male peers

In 2017, the profession was practically split 50/50 along male/female lines in terms of total number of solicitors with 69,629 male and 69,995 female solicitors. That parity has now shifted firmly in favour of women.

This year, there are 70,321 male solicitors, a 0.99% growth in the past five years. In contrast, there are now 76,933 female solicitors, a 9.9% growth during the same period. This creates an interesting situation when it comes to representation of women in the profession. If these growth patterns were to be maintained over the next five years there would be 71,017 male solicitors and 84,549 female solicitors, nudging female representation to 54%.

Men make up 62% of solicitors with 20 or more years’ experience while women make up 64% of solicitors at newly qualified (NQ), a proportion that slides to 56% for solicitors with 15-to-19 years’ experience. We could see the dial shift even further in the direction of women as the older male lawyers retire, with most of those solicitors replacing them being female.

The fact that a third of partners are female overstates the progress being made by women lawyers

The report states that 33% (or thereabouts) of all partners are women, a figure which drops to 25% (or thereabouts) for equity partners. While this is true from a certain statistical point of view, it overstates the level of female representation at the profession’s senior level.

The figure is reached by using the metric of the total overall number of partners. However, that number disregards the proportion of men and women making partner, thereby skewing the figures.

There are 21,806 male partners (66% of all partners) in contrast to 10,664 female partners (33%). However, there are 70,321 male solicitors, which means 21,806 of them (31%) are partners. There are 76,933 female solicitors of whom just 10,664 are partners, which means just 13.8% of female solicitors are partners.

Almost a third of male solicitors in the UK are partners. That figure alone is staggering. If men were represented proportionality to women, there would be a not-so-grand total of 3,009 male partners. Likewise, if women were represented in the same proportion to men, there would be 23,849 female partners.

Granted, the proportion of female partners is edging up, but the rate of progress remains sluggish, certainly when compared to the number of women entering the profession. It will still take a very long time for women solicitors to become as proportionally represented at partnership as men…if they ever do.

Twenty seems to be the magic/tragic number…

As mentioned, between years 1 and 19 of practising, women make up the majority of solicitors, starting at 64% for newly qualified lawyers and sliding to 56% for those with 19 years of experience. However, after 20 years the figure drops to 38%, flipping to 62% in favour of men.

Some women (and men) chose to leave the profession and the quest for partnership often falls at the time when many associates are thinking about starting families. Perhaps many women retire earlier than men or more embark upon second careers.  It is interesting of itself that women with more than 19 years’ experience are not retained by the profession in the same way as their male counterparts.

Data is missing and definitions are changing

Several data metrics are missing a significant number of participants who did not make a declaration. Out of the 21,842 solicitors with 0-4 years’ experience, almost a quarter (5,015, or 23%) did not declare their ‘gender’, while 80% didn’t reveal their ethnicity.

The research claims the declaration rate for recently qualified solicitors has declined since the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) moved its authorisation process online and measures are being taken to address this. Even so, just 40% of five-to-six year qualified solicitors and 73% of those who are seven-to-nine-year qualified declared their ethnicity, with the overall figure at 75%.

Speculation is all we can go on and quite what drives the desire, or not, to provide personal information or how it should be phrased is unknown.

There are also parameters to the research that are set to change, with certain transgender perspectives for instance. This year’s SRA Diversity Questionnaire, as a case in point, worded the question about declaring your ‘sex’, rather than ‘gender’, and included ‘other preferred description’ as an option. Indeed, there was a separate question on whether the gender you identify with is the same as your sex registered at birth. These are important definitions not included in the current reporting.

This lack of critical data and changing definitions could reshape the research going forward.

The Bar and CILEX stats are worse and better respectively (at least for women)

The solicitors’ statistics may be a mixed bag, but the UK’s barristers’ profession is lagging further behind. Women make up just 39% of the total barrister headcount and have yet to break through as a majority at the junior ranks, although at 49% for those with 0-to-4 years’ experience, it seems inevitable. The fact that just 18% of Queen’s Counsel are women will take much longer to change.

The Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX), is on a different path. CILEX is the professional body for Chartered Legal Executives, or CILEX Lawyers, which has long-been an alternative route into law than the traditional solicitor path of university and training contracts. As the body states, CILEX’s routes of entry are more flexible and practical.

Granted, while CILEX lawyers are a much smaller sample, with 8,769 legal executives (compared to 17,123 barristers and 154,208 solicitors), the data is, in some ways, the same issue but reversed in that women are over-represented and men under-represented. In total, 76.2% of CILEX lawyers are female (peaking at 82% for 10-to-19 years' qualified) with 70% of all CILEX partners also being female. There must be some lesson in there somewhere?

Jules Quinn is an employment partner and Elysia-Elena Stellakis is trainee at King & Spalding's London office. They provide personal perspectives on the women in law debate here

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