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Women in law

9 July 2018

As Christina Blacklaws takes the reins as new Law Society president, one of her presidential themes is women in leadership in law. How can lawyers and local law societies in the regions help?

With a mandate to represent, promote and support all solicitors, the Law Society of England and Wales is committed to reflecting the diversity of our society and Christina’s presidential year plan certainly espouses similar themes.

One such focus is women in leadership in law; a central theme of her presidency to promote and support gender equality in the legal sector which already has garnered broad support from local law societies across England and Wales

It has been almost a century since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed which allowed women to qualify as solicitors, and in that time women have taken the profession by storm. Since 1990 women have represented over 60 per cent of new entrants into the profession, and our Annual Statistics report for 2017 revealed there are now more women than men practicing as solicitors. There are over a dozen female solicitor MPs and peers in Parliament, in private practice there are female lawyers leading the profession, in-house there are female General Counsel at some of the biggest companies in the world, and in the justice system Lady Hale presides as President of the Supreme Court.

These statistics and role models are encouraging, yet it is clear that more can still be done. Women are still not making it to partner status in equal numbers to men: our statistics show that of the approximately 30,000 partners in private practice, 72 per cent are men and only 28 per cent are women. Women aged between 36-40 and older, are voting with their feet and leaving the profession - often at the point when they have the skills and experience to become partners in firms. Therefore, while the position of women solicitors has improved, gender inequality remains a relevant issue today and, according to Christina, the time to affect change is now:

'It does seem that we are ripe to make and embrace step change in our profession. This isn’t just in the interests of female solicitors. It’s not just an issue for 50 per cent of us but for 100 per cent. We have all suffered from the unhelpful and limiting pigeon-holing that has been dominant in our profession for so many years'.

Encouraging progress

One of Christina’s first presidential events to accelerate this step change will be to meet with key female stakeholders from Birmingham’s legal profession on 23 July. Birmingham Law Society (BLS) are reflecting on the progress made over the past 100 years and president, James Turner, feels there is much more to be done. BLS’ own research on equality and diversity highlighted that whilst 67 per cent of entrants to university courses are female, only 27 per cent account for partners in private practice. The figures hold in relation to trainee positions (62 per cent female) and solicitors admitted to the role (61 per cent). 49.5 per cent of practising certificate holders were women.

Whilst these figures on entrance to the profession are encouraging and an improvement for BLS, they tail off with women more likely to be associate or assistant solicitors compared to their male counterparts. James also believes firms need to be more transparent in the way firms are publishing their respective gender pay gap figures, suggesting '…it would aid the process for firms… to have included partners rather than taking the opportunity to provide data only for 'employees'.

Nationwide statistics suggest similar challenges to those in Birmingham. Since 1990 women have represented over 60 per cent of new entrants into the profession and yet are only 28 per cent of partners in private practice. The issues go way beyond the ‘maternity penalty’ as women without children or caring responsibilities have also found their careers have been impeded by bias (unconscious or otherwise), less opportunities for good quality client work, promotion and reward. The profession’s statistics around Gender Pay Gap reporting make uncomfortable reading.

Women in leadership in law

One look at the office holder rosters of many local law societies painfully highlights a gender imbalance at the very top and progress still appears to be glacial. Nottingham Law Society has only had six female presidents in the entirety of its - close to - 150 year history, with two of those assuming presidency in the last two years. Laura Pinkney, current president, is excited at the prospect of working with the Law Society to raise an awareness around the issue:

'I am delighted to support Christina’s ‘Women in leadership in Law’ project. As only the sixth female president in Nottinghamshire Law Society’s 143 year history, I am well aware that our profession needs to do more to encourage women in to positions of leadership and influence and improving diversity and social mobility is one of my key themes for my presidential year. I look forward to working with Christina and the Law Society to encourage more firms to embrace the benefits of offering more flexible working and to lobby the government to introduce more equal maternity and paternity rights as these issues are key in helping to keep women in the profession and in senior positions. This will help strengthen our profession and ultimately benefit our clients. It is imperative that as a profession we are as diverse as those we represent'.

In fact, Nottingham have been part of an ambitious programme already in flux to empower women to be leaders, to lead as women and to enable men to have more flexibility. Alongside a series of roundtables taking place across England and Wales with local law societies, the Law Society will also:

  • provide a practical toolkit of packaged opportunities for women who are participating in roundtables who want to take forward change making activities in their organisation, within their community, on issues relating to unconscious bias, gender pay gap, the history of women in law, male champions for change, and international sisterhood
  • assess all outcomes of changes made, impact and lessons learned following the roundtables which will be included in a final report for International Women’s Day 2018
  • commission an international literature review undertaken by the University of Westminster to ensure we harness the knowledge gained through academic research of women in the law which will enable us to gain insight and identify best practice for the future
  • host an International symposium in London in June 2019 marking the 100th anniversary of women in law.

Working together

For the ‘Women in leadership in Law’ project to be successful, participation from women, men and local law societies across England and Wales is vital. To create long lasting change it is necessary for all regions to actively raise the issue of gender inequality within the legal sector. The Law Society is looking to work with all regions to host and help arrange roundtables for women’s personal insight and experiences around progression in the profession. Christina has already led a number of these roundtables across the country which have been met with great enthusiasm and commitments to act.

Liverpool Law Society hosted one of the first roundtables with Christina to gather the qualitative information to find out what really prevents women from making the step to leadership in the law. President of Liverpool LS, Nina Ferris feels '…issues such as gender equality are so important for our profession as a whole that collaboration with TLS is key if we are to invoke change on a national scale.'

And it does not stop there for Liverpool. Its plan of action is to carry out a number of focus groups with their members at all stages in their careers with the assistance of the local WLD and JLD membership to raise awareness of this project. Nina’s view is by doing so will ensure '…gender equality remains on the agenda in the centenary year of women solicitors and beyond.'

All this suggests together, in the spirit of collaboration, both the national and local law societies can make some profound change in the area and Christina has a call to arms to all local law societies:

'I would like all regions to seize this opportunity for activism to lead their organisations and participate in the international efforts to promote women in leadership in law and establish fairer practises for us all. We want to make 2019 the Year of Women in the Law and we need your help and commitment to make this happen. Please be part of the solution!'

If you would like to participate please get in touch with Christina at president@lawsociety.org.uk.

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