Law firms should introduce targets to increase the representation of women lawyers in partnership and senior roles, and turn talk of flexible working into reality, a major new report has recommended.
The call came with a claim from Law Society president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff that if career progression was based on pure merit, some male law firm senior partners “would never even have seen the paintings on the boardroom wall”.
The report came out of last year’s International Women in Law Summit at the Law Society in London, with the recommendations – aimed at both professional bodies and law firms – based on research, a pre-conference survey  by LexisNexis of 1,144 women lawyers from around the world and the views of delegates, who were drawn from top City firms, boutique practices and senior in-house counsel.
It called on law firms to “commit to the adoption of targets” for women’s progression to senior roles, and “encourage partners to be accountable for retention, career development and building a diverse pipeline”.
Further, firms need to take action to close the gap between policy and culture, making flexible working for both men and women a choice “that does not impede long-term career progression”. This would include measuring and reporting the take-up of flexible working and providing alternate roles and later entry points to partnership.
Firms were also told to enhance career development support – such as with mentoring programmes and leadership training for women – to drive improved gender diversity, as well as to improve training in management to equip partners to provide better and more consistent support.
The report said that as women have traditionally fared better working in-house, in-house lawyers can play a key role in driving change within law firms, such as by “strengthening questions regarding working practices in legal tendering processes”.
Speaking at a launch event last night, Ms Lucy Scott-Moncrieff said: “An increasing number of firms have genuinely embraced and adopted modern flexible working practices, allowing better work-life balance. These firms are attracting more talented women and men with boardroom potential.
“But there remains an uncomfortable truth. In some firms, where the opportunities for those wanting to strike a balance between high-flying work and family life are still scarce, men dominate the boardrooms. Unwittingly, these firms may be losing talented women and promoting mediocre men.
“It is not enough to merely pay lip service to the benefits of flexible working. It is not acceptable to consider women who take advantage of flexible working practices as somehow lacking commitment. The risk is that boardrooms will be full of men only some of whose talent warrants their senior positions. If career progression was based on pure merit, some male business leaders and law firm senior partners would never even have seen the paintings on the boardroom wall.”
Helen Grant, who is minister for women and equalities as well as being a junior justice minister, said: “Women are at the heart of this country’s economic growth strategy. We need to do all we can to make the most of their talents and skills and that means providing them with the support to balance family life and a career.”
However, while endorsing the importance of flexible and part-time working, she said “special treatment or mandatory quotas” is not the right approach. “The evidence shows that our voluntary approach is working; in the past six months women now represent 44% of FTSE 100 board appointments. We are taking the same approach with Think, Act, Report – a voluntary scheme that encourages companies to think about how to offer equal opportunities for women in the workplace. This approach is driving real change with more than 1.2m employees – 11% of the eligible workforce – now working for companies who support the scheme.”
Firms including Ashurst, Eversheds and Hogan Lovells have already introduced targets for the number of women in high-level positions, whilst seven law firms have signed up to the Think, Act, Report initiative.