The waiting game – is the face of the legal profession really changing?

Sarah Deacon, area manager and segment lead lawyers, at Wesleyan Financial Services rounds up the main talking points from their panel sessions, in collaboration with the Law Society, that addressed the main challenges women lawyers continue to face and the barriers in career progression.

Lady Justice statue with woman working in the background on laptop

The Law Society’s annual statistics report 2018: ‘Trends in the solicitors’ profession’, highlighted that women make up almost two-thirds of new traineeships in private practice firms, yet only 30% of partners within private practice are female.

With statistics like this, it’s little wonder that conversations about diversity remain a delicate topic within the legal sector.

To support International Women’s Day 2020, in collaboration with the Law Society, Wesleyan hosted panel debates across the country discussing the barriers faced by women in law.

After the UK lockdown, additional online panels were staged with leading lawyers, barristers and legal professionals from a variety of firms who joined from home.

The overwhelming consensus of attendees was that while significant strides have been made, there is still some way to go before true gender equality or conscious inclusion is achieved in law firms, especially at partner and C-suite level.

Four key challenges emerged from the discussions:

  • the gender pay gap within the legal profession
  • unconscious bias stopping women from achieving their career aspirations
  • the impact of career breaks
  • retirement

Mind the gap

There was a firm belief that work and progression opportunities are allocated differently for men and women within law firms. The statistics for women in England and Wales are clear: women have entered the profession at a higher rate than men for 25 years, women make up over half of practising solicitors - and yet women remain underrepresented in leadership positions. One attendee suggested:

“Women are more likely to be in ‘face-friendly’ areas of law whereas men tend to be in the commercial and the business side where the most money is generated. Firms’ profits are therefore mainly being generated by men.”

Research conducted by the Office for National Statistics in October 2019 shows that 49% of all full-time solicitors are female – yet the average female lawyer earns 17.4% less than her male counterpart. Aside from a lesser amount of disposable income, the implications of the pay gap on longer-term finances can be significant. Pension contributions and the ability to protect income can all be affected by lower salaries.

Social stereotypes remain

It was felt that inbuilt unconscious biases remain in the legal sector in the same way they exist in most other workplaces, which significantly hinder career progression.

Unconscious bias links all the underlying challenges confronting female lawyers. Most agreed that outdated attitudes still exist in the profession.

Some of the attendees felt negative perceptions had been formed towards those women who failed to gain ‘traditional’ A-level qualifications such as English, History and Politics before studying law, or who hadn’t acquired formal work experience in pro bono work or mini-pupillages shadowing a barrister.

Attending a non-red brick university and training at a smaller firm outside of the Magic Circle and Legal 500 rankings also casts negative assumptions that you have earned less and have had limited opportunities to build your network. Together, these ingrained perceptions add up to permanently affect the careers of lawyers and segregate the market.

The cost of missed opportunities

The impact of taking career breaks and maternity leave continues to weigh heavily on the minds of female lawyers. Many worry that their ability to gain new opportunities and promotions will suffer if they have children. Juggling work and caring responsibilities for young or elderly relatives falls predominantly, and often entirely, to women. This invariably may jeopardise their long-term earning potential and financial security. A report by financial services firm Fidelity (PDF) ‘The financial power of women’, discovered that working mothers are earning 20% less than fathers as much as 10 years after the birth of their last child.

Pensions gap

The impact on their immediate finances by taking a career break was one of several concerns volunteered by women during these panel discussions. Many were worried about not paying into a workplace pension whilst not working. Reduced income due to a career break or reduced working hours would also influence mortgage borrowing.

Thoughts turned to the widening pensions gap between men and women. Fidelity’s research revealed that the average pension pot for women is £28,900, compared to £34,500 for men. The pensions shortfall, when taken together with shifts in family structure, well-being, home ownership and social care systems, is leaving many women feeling exposed and worried about how they can adequately plan for their retirement.

What can law firms do?

Large corporate law firms have traditionally been perceived as conservative, exclusive ‘clubs’ which only hire more of the same to maintain the monoculture. Although times are changing, for many aspiring female lawyers they are not changing fast enough. Female lawyers who have progressed through the ranks do share some common characteristics in terms of resilience, integrity and leadership qualities. Making a commitment to networking from the outset of their careers is critical for building long-term client relationships to win more work and further career progression.

Choosing the right firm can play a vital part in aiding a woman’s career. Progressive firms embrace innovative technology, are flexible in their approach to employees’ working patterns and accept that law firms of the future should not just be run by lawyers at senior management level but also by finance, human resource and IT workers, for example.

They acknowledge that employees will need to take time out at some stage in their careers but actively encourage them to stay in touch. They will have a clear ‘path to partnership’ plan that supports men and women to fulfil their professional goals at a period in their lives which is most suitable to them. Firms that are not proactively addressing succession planning raise concerns that they are leaving their legacy to chance and potentially stagnating the careers of their brightest talents.

When considering their long-term career paths, it’s important for women to express their aspirations and goals. In doing so, they can challenge misconceptions that they might not be seeking to advance their careers because they are embarking on starting a family.

Clearly more needs to be done to break down barriers impacting inclusion and diversity in the law. Thankfully, some firms are taking proactive steps to support women by better understanding what is driving some of the profession’s main issues around equal opportunities, pay and creating a diverse workplace culture.

To further consider the issues raised in this article download Wesleyan’s whitepaper The Changing Face of the Legal Profession.

93 women took part in the Wesleyan seminars.

Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society. Wesleyan Bank is one of the Law Society's partners.

See Fidelity’s research: The financial power of women

Sign up for our Women in Law Pledge, launched in partnership with the Bar Council of England and Wales and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx).

Explore our Women in Leadership in Law and download the toolkit

Explore the Women Lawyers Division networks and support

Solicitors or their staff can call our free and confidential pastoral care helpline on 020 7320 5795 if they're experiencing personal, financial, professional or employment difficulties. Staffed Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

Follow our diversity and inclusion Twitter account

Our Practice Advice Service offers free and confidential support and advice on legal practice and procedure open 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday on 020 7320 5675.

Maximise your Law Society membership with My LS