Is the legal profession doing enough to drive gender equality?

There was a key milestone for gender equality in the legal profession last year. For the first time, female solicitors outnumbered their male peers across England and Wales.

Law Society figures revealed 50.1% of practising certificate holders are now female, with women comprising 61.6% of new admissions in 2016-17. The news came almost 100 years after the first female solicitor, Carrie Morrison, entered the profession in 1922.

Morrison and her peers overcame overwhelming adversity to achieve their career dreams. In 1913, the Law Society had forbidden women from becoming solicitors because they were not deemed ‘persons’ in accordance with the Solicitors Act 1843.

The profession has clearly taken significant strides forward since then, but there remain gender diversity issues within the industry. Women may make up over half of all solicitors in England and Wales, yet the figures are far less encouraging at senior levels.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority found that while 59% of non-partner solicitors were female in 2017, this slumped to just 33% among partners. Within the FTSE 100, less than a quarter (22%) of GCs are women.

Barriers to gender equality in the legal profession

Just 48% of women feel progress has been made with regards to gender equality in the profession over the last five years, according to Law Society data. Tellingly, nearly three-quarters of men (74%) said the same, indicating there is a perception gap between the sexes on the pace of progress.

A huge push for gender equality appears to be now underway within the profession. The Law Society’s current President, Christina Blacklaws, has emphasised the importance of reducing the gender imbalance in senior legal roles.

According to the report, female solicitors face similar problems worldwide, regardless of whether they work in private practice or in-house. When polled, solicitors said the top three barriers to career progress for women were:

  • Unconscious bias (52% of respondents); 
  • Unacceptable work-life balance for senior roles (49%); and 
  • Male-oriented routes to promotion (46%).

Previous research from the Law Society has shown some benefits for female solicitors who move in-house, such as better training, development and career progression. However, unconscious bias and gender pay gaps often remain problems in-house, and there can still be a stigma attached to working flexible hours in some organisations.

Tackling gender equality challenges

The good news is that in-house departments seem to be leading the charge in driving gender equality across the broader legal profession. This year, 170 GCs and corporate legal officers signed an open letter suggesting big law firms could lose their business if they failed on diversity and inclusion metrics.

“We, as a group, will direct our substantial outside counsel spend to those law firms that manifest results with respect to diversity and inclusion, in addition to providing the highest degree of quality representation,” the letter read.

Michelle Fang, Chief Legal Officer at Truro, spearheaded the letter after Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison faced a social media storm for posting a photo of its latest partner promotions. Of the 12 lawyers chosen, almost all were white males.

Ms Fang later followed up with a strategy document aimed at in-house teams hoping to improve the diversity of outside counsel.

But what about in-house departments that want to deliver better gender equality within their own ranks? The Law Society has provided seven recommendations:

  1. Encourage men to become champions for change;
  2. Take a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment; 
  3. Ensure women support other women; 
  4. Establish targets and quotas to rebalance inequalities;
  5. Create a values-based business and development network; 
  6. Lead from the top by example; and 
  7. Implement strong recruitment and selection processes. 

Unsurprisingly, the last recommendation is of particular interest to us here at Barclay Simpson.

Diversity-led recruitment within in-house legal

In our latest Market Report, we found that 20% of in-house legal departments do not have specific diversity targets. Even those that do encountered mixed results, with half of employers saying diversity-led recruitment drives were unsuccessful.

Nevertheless, the majority of our clients remain keen to improve diversity, particularly at the senior levels. So, what advice did the Law Society have regarding recruitment and selection processes? Here are a number of options:

  • Prevent policies and practices from negatively affecting certain demographics by collecting data for analysis; 
  • Conduct annual audits to evaluate the success of diversity-led recruitment at various stages, including applications, shortlisting and appointment;
  • Use blind and/or contextual recruitment measures for all internal and external vacancies;
  • Ensure hiring managers have undertaken diversity and inclusion training; 
  • Implement competency-based assessments when assessing value for promotions and remuneration packages; and
  • Consider using the ‘tie-break’ clause of the Equality Act 2010 where necessary.

Overall, finding in-house lawyers with the right skillset is still the main priority for most organisations. Private practice salaries continue to climb, encouraging lawyers to stay at major law firms for longer. As a result, the talent pool for quality in-house candidates is shallow; capable professionals rarely stay on the market for long. In fact, our research showed attracting candidates with the required technical skills was the primary recruitment challenge for 45% of hiring managers last year. Interpersonal skills were also in short supply, with 32% of employers struggling to source in-house lawyers with these abilities.

These talent shortages make meeting diversity goals even more difficult. However, Barclay Simpson embraces equality, diversity and inclusion, and we are committed to helping our clients meet their objectives in this area. If you would like to discuss your in-house legal recruitment needs, we can take a tailored approach that fits your organisation’s diversity and inclusion policies.

Please contact me today on 020 7936 2601 or via email at to see how we can help.

Our 2019 Market Report combines our review of the prevailing conditions in the in-house legal recruitment market with the results of our latest employer and candidate surveys.

Image credit: Tim Mossholder via Unsplash