Law Society chief: failure to embrace flexible working holding back partnership diversity

Scott-Moncrieff: procurement and supplier diversity was weakest area

Only a third of large firms who are signed up to a Law Society diversity charter – including three-quarters of the top-100 – have adopted flexible working, which helps explain why their partnerships remain “overwhelmingly white, heterosexual, male and able bodied”, the society’s president has complained.

The finding was contained in an annual self-assessment of the diversity performance of 177 cohort firms who are signatories to the society’s diversity and inclusion charter – representing 70,271 staff and over a third of all solicitors in private practice. They include 74 of the top-100 firms and 34 small firms with 25 or fewer employees.

The society describes the charter, which was launched in 2009, as “the flagship diversity initiative of the legal profession”. It includes protocols covering procurement by purchasers of legal services, monitoring of workforce diversity information, and flexible working.

Introducing the charter’s third annual review, published yesterday, president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff welcomed the fact that 70% of firms declared themselves to have improved their achievement of best practice standards, and that small firms as well as larger ones were doing “good work” on diversity.

But she observed that incorporating a flexible working protocol into the charter – introduced after 2010 research by the society showed women solicitors found a lack of flexible working a significant career obstacle – had failed bring it about in practice.

While all charter firms met their legislative obligation to consider flexible working, said Ms Scott-Moncrieff, “barely a third can demonstrate flexible working at various levels within their workforce”.

She continued: “This almost certainly influences the fact that the review again shows that the partnership profile for Charter cohort firms remains overwhelmingly white, heterosexual, male and able bodied.

“While there is increasing diversity at entry points to the profession, career development and retention for under-represented groups is still patchy. This is a challenge which must be addressed both by firms and the Law Society.”

The review found that 33% of large firms and 54% of small firms had adopted flexible working at various levels of their practices. Meanwhile, monitoring data – supplied by 46% of the charter cohort workforce – showed that 34% of partners were the primary carer for children and 16% had other care responsibilities. “This highlights the importance of ensuring flexible working can operate effectively at all levels,” the review said.

Supporting Ms Scott-Moncrieff’s criticisms of the make-up of charter firms, the review found that while women constituted 60% of all solicitors, they were just 29% of partners, although this was up by 6% compared with 2011. Similarly, just 6% of partners were black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME), while they made up 10% of solicitors. But this compared favourably with just 4.4% of BAME partners in 2011.

Ms Scott-Moncrieff also highlighted as “the weakest area in this review” the performance of charter firms in procurement and supplier diversity. Fewer than 10% had built diversity into procurement and nearly a third wouldn’t rate themselves on procurement at all. This was “disappointing”, she said.

Priority areas for action in 2013 were identified as including training targeted at improving diversity, the use of key performance indicators and monitoring, delivering on equal pay, and improving both online and physical accessibility.


    Readers Comments

  • Depressing if not surprising – at the starting point in their careers 70 per cent of lawyers are women, but at partner level only 12 per cent are.

    Promoting flexibility alone won’t solve this – one of the main reasons for this is that most people, not just lawyers select in their own image.

    White, middle-aged men will promote white middle-aged men because that’s what makes them feel comfortable and because they will probably have spent time together at evening networking events or on golf days: Many women don’t have the time to do these things once they’ve had children and quite a few of us don’t want to hang out in the men’s club anyway.

    Another part of the problem is that the partnership model just doesn’t lend itself to flexibility, and this is where other business models can help female lawyers reach there potential.

    You can, in fact, be a successful working mother providing there is a bit of creative thinking on both sides. One legal outsourcing company, Obelisk Legal Support has around 100 lawyers and 260 legal translators who would otherwise have disappeared from the market. They choose how many hours they want to work and the client gets a top lawyer of city calibre for their money.

    If only traditional law firms could be so creative!

  • Thank you Louise for the comments about Obelisk. I work with Obelisk and it is a very exciting time for us. More and more people are finally realising that a lot of very intelligent women are eager to work in the legal profession and look after their families. Embracing flexible working is a winner for the legal world and for the economy. Not to mention, helping women make the most of their qualifications and setting a fantastic example for their children to follow.

  • Well, I’m not interested in “helping women”. I’m interested in a successful business.

    That said, in the case of my law firm, we have 22 lawyers 20 of whom are women.

    We have 7 management/admin people 5 of whom are women.

    All our lawyers work from home. Is that a coincidence?

    We genuinely believe that we have conciously chosen the best people for the job–that has meant about 85% women! Firms that don’t do this miss out on a major source of talent, at their own significant risk.

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