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Women and innovation - speech by Catherine Dixon

21 September 2016

On 20 September Law Society CEO Catherine Dixon spoke at the International Bar Association conference in Washington DC.


Carrie Morrison became the first woman solicitor in 1922. By 1931, 100 women had qualified as solicitors, and today women make up almost half of the profession.

  • 47 per cent of the UK's workforce are women
  • 48 per cent of solicitors are women

More women are entering the profession: 60 per cent of law graduates are women and an equal amount of new admissions to the roll.

Impact of in-house

Women make up a higher proportion of the in-house solicitor population (56 per cent per cent) compared with the population of solicitors more generally (48 per cent).

Public and third sector organisations employ a larger proportion of women in-house solicitors than private sector organisations. For example, in local government bodies (the largest sub-group of public bodies) 66 per cent of in-house solicitors are women. In advice centres, it's 68 per cent.

Legal consultancies, the armed forces and central government bodies employ the smallest proportion of women in-house.

Our GC350 report showed that the influence of in-house solicitors is increasing - in-house counsel are now more likely to sit on the board or report directly to the CEO. In addition, over half of them set and manage legal budgets. This has had an impact on the ever increasing role of women in the legal sector.

Progress, but more work to do

There are a number of examples of influential and innovative female leaders.

Consider leaders in the City of London such as Sonia Leydecker at Herbert Smith Freehills, or Penelope Warne at CMS Cameron McKenna. Or in-house general counsel at some of the biggest companies in the world: Della Burnside at McDonalds, or Rosemary Martin at Vodafone. And the women that lead our legal and political institutions:

  • Baroness Hale, Deputy president of the Supreme Court in the UK
  • Baroness Scotland, former UK attorney general and now secretary general of the Commonwealth
  • Loretta Lynch, US attorney general
  • Paulette Brown of the ABA in the States.

This progress is very encouraging but we are still a long way from equality.

Women in senior positions

The evidence shows that, for business at least, gender parity is a good thing. In a recent study by Ernst & Young, 64 per cent of high performing companies reported that men and women have equal influence on strategy in their organisations, compared with only 43 per cent of lower performing companies. There are also plenty of other studies which show that businesses have increased profitability, return on investment and innovation when women are counted among senior leadership.

However, in the legal sector, women are still not making it to partner level in equal numbers to men. Research shows that of approximately 30,000 partners in private practice, the current proportions at partner level are 72 per cent men, and just 28 per cent are women.

Gender pay gap

There is still some work to do to narrow the gender pay gap. Average pay for men is greater than that for women. According to the UK Office of National Statistics, nationally the gap narrowed to 9.4 per cent for full-time employees in 2015 - the lowest since records began in 1997, although the gap has changed relatively little in recent years. The gap for all employees remained unchanged at 19.2 per cent.

In our 2015 survey of practicing certificate holders we found that the gender pay gap in the legal sector based on median annual earnings is 25 per cent. Men in the legal sector earned £15,000 more than women in 2015. (Comparison between national and legal sector figures is complex as national figure based on hourly rates of pay.)

The pay gap is wider for those at partnership level at nearly 20 per cent for equity partners or salaried partners, compared to those at non-partner level, which is around 10 per cent at associate level.

Workplace discrimination

An additional problem is discrimination in the workplace. The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee recently released a report investigating discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers.

Research by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) revealed that 77 per cent of the women surveyed reported at least one potentially discriminatory or negative experience, and 61 per cent reported two or more such experiences connected to being a new or expectant mother.

Half of mothers reported a negative impact on their career, such as being given duties at a lower level or being treated with less respect. Around 20 per cent said that they had experienced harassment or negative comments related to pregnancy or flexible working from their employer and/or colleagues. Eleven per cent reported being either dismissed or made compulsorily redundant, where others in their workplace were not, or treated so poorly that they felt they had to leave their job. Ten per cent said that their employer had discouraged them from attending antenatal appointments.

We know that failures by employers at this stage in a woman's career is one of the key factors affecting the lack of female leadership at the highest level. The problem now is less about attracting women to the legal profession, and more about keeping them and developing their talents and skills through career progression.

Of course, this assumes that women actually want to get to the top. Executive Coaching Consultancy surveyed women working in the City and found that a lack of interest in pursuing a senior role is a significant issue for City law firms.

Only one-third of women in law say they want a job in senior management or to achieve partnership, compared to just less than two-thirds in banking. In law, one in three young women have already ruled out pursuing a senior role, compared to one in five in banking. This may be because they look at the culture at the top - high pressure and competition, coupled with long hours - and decide that they don't want to work like that.

A number of law firms are in the 30 per cent club, setting themselves the challenge to appoint at least 30 per cent of women to their boards. As Lord Davies acknowledged in his final report last year on gender equality on boards, a great deal of progress has been made in appointing women to non-executive roles on boards. But the real gap now is the appointment of executive directors - senior people from within the organisation - and so the UK government has set up a new review under Sir Philip Hampton to look at ways to increase the number of women at this level.

In addition, draft regulations were published earlier this year which will require organisations with 250 or more UK employees to publish information on their gender pay gap by April 2018.

So what are we doing at the Law Society? We have produced a practice note to help firms understand their legal and ethical obligations around transparency and equal pay.We provide support to women solicitors through our Women Lawyers' Network and our diversity and inclusion team. We organise workshops supporting those returning to work, wanting to advance in their career or simply wanting to hear and l from and be inspired by other women in the profession. We also work closely with law firms to help them shape their diversity and inclusion policies so that good talent is not wasted.

It is essential that the legal community recognises the contribution women can make at a senior level, and where they are losing talented women, take steps to retain their knowledge and expertise. Bringing more women into positions of power and influence in the profession will help to develop understanding around the issues that women face in the workplace - and will lead to changes in culture and practice such as better flexible working policies.

Women can lead innovation

Things are changing for the better and women will continue to innovate in both legal practice, and the firms and businesses in which they work.

The new Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary in the UK Liz Truss, last week announced that the government will be investing £1billion into a 'digital justice' system. This would include upgrading our court system to make greater use of wi-fi technology, video links and paperless systems. The government has also been starting to think differently about how it can use the online space to deliver justice, entering guilty pleas for traffic offences online for example.

Obviously our view is that implementing technology should not put the proper and fair administration of justice at risk. But the Law Society will be scrutinising the range of proposals in more detail, as the basic principle of bringing people closer to justice through technology has a number of benefits. The profession is also innovating to meet modern legal needs.

CrowdJustice is an online crowd funding platform for legal cases, launched by former Linklaters and UN lawyer Julia Salasky last year. People can submit their cases to the platform to raise funds and community support. These can range from big environmental cases against multinationals, to judicial reviews of local planning decisions. Crowdfunding is widely used in other social action and creative areas so why not law?

Former Law Society president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff was one of the first solicitors to establish a 'virtual' law firm, giving solicitors more flexible working conditions, and their clients more choice in how they choose to access legal services.

Today there are a range of virtual law firms using technology to help simplify the legal process and improve access to justice. Firms that consider the effective use of smart phones, apps, and other technology that people now take for granted in life, are growing and women are leading the way.

Professor Kate Atkinson at Liverpool University is a leading specialist in developing the use of technology and artificial intelligence in the law. Katie gave a fascinating presentation at our Robots and Lawyers conference at the Law Society earlier this year, giving us an insight into the potential for technology to really revolutionise the legal system and the profession. Her team is currently working on a project with Riverview Law to develop automated reasoning techniques using artificial intelligence. This has implications, not just for lawyers, but for the judiciary too.

Although courtrooms fully staffed by robots might seem a long way off, the potential is there and women are using the opportunities technology offers to think differently about how legal services can be provided and justice can be served.

Advances in technology can also help to reduce the administrative burden on solicitors. This can only have a positive impact on the working conditions of women in the profession.

In the UK, it is now mandatory for all companies to seriously consider flexible working requests. And now a number of City and commercial firms have begun to review their requirements of staff, as well as their office head count. Schillings has become the latest firm to begin implementing an 'agile' working policy across the business.

We know that 'millenials' - young people born between the early 80s and the early noughties - are changing the way all companies think about work, as they demand greater flexibility and autonomy in the workplace, aided by technology.

Firms are unlikely to change their entire culture overnight, but a generational push from both sexes for a greater work-life balance using increased technology may combat some of the face-time culture often cited as the reason for the female associate 'brain drain' that occurs between qualification and partnership. It will certainly have a positive impact on those - men or women - needing flexibility in work to fit in with their family commitments.

Along with policies like blind application and allocation that many law firms are implementing successfully, and moves away from the rigidity of billable hours to a more outputs and outcomes focussed approach to client support, these changes are helping to bring about a level playing field for women.

The legal teams at big companies like Microsoft and Gap are incentivising diversity, and requesting information about the diversity of the lawyers working on their accounts. Firms who perform well can expect a two to three per cent increase in fees. When I was chief executive of the NHS Litigation Authority, we considered similar ways to boost the productivity and balance of the legal services we received.

And even more ideas and innovations are on the horizon. Earlier this summer Stanford University partnered with Bloomberg Law and DiversityLabs to organise a hackathon specifically designed to generate innovative ideas and solutions that will lead to greater retention and advancement of experienced women in law firms.

Fifty-four partners from some of the biggest firms globally such as Reed Smith, Hogan Lovells and DLA Piper teamed up with Stanford University students to pitch their ideas, supported by leading women in the law and academia. These initiatives are new and exciting, allowing us to look at the profession and the way we work with fresh eyes. The Law Society is sponsoring the Legal Geek hackathon in London next month and I'm looking forward to seeing and meeting a host of talented, innovative women in the profession at that event.

As women solicitors and leaders in the legal profession we have a duty to support such initiatives, so that the change can continue at pace. By challenging the cultures that have held women back in the past, and supporting the development of new and innovative ways to do business, we can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our organisations, the quality of legal services, and practical working conditions for women.


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