Unconscious bias in the legal profession against women is so deep-rooted that ‘New Law’ businesses trying to reshape legal services are just as affected, it has been claimed.
Janvi Patel, co-founder of pioneering law firm Halebury, said there was an onus on in-house lawyers to instruct women-led businesses to begin effecting change.
Halebury, which Ms Patel founded in 2007 with Denise Nurse after both had worked in-house, was set up to provide in-house departments with flexible legal resources. It currently has nearly 30 senior former in-house lawyers on its books.
Writing on the firm’s website, Ms Patel said that although the unconscious bias that led men to recruit and promote other men was well established, “there are encouraging signs that the legal profession is facing up to these challenges”.
She explained: “Diversity has become something that the best law firms are increasingly ready to talk about.
“It is weaved into the culture and values through which law firms attempt to define themselves; it is a language that law firms must speak if they are to attract and retain the best millennial talent at all levels, including attracting and retaining senior women.”
But she suggested that this has not made much difference “to the transactional dynamic that defines our industry, i.e. what happens when in-house lawyers instruct private practitioners”.
She cited new research from Acritas that found male clients chose to instruct a male lead partner 83% of the time. Female clients were 50% more likely to instruct a female lead partner, but still instructed a male lead partner three times out of four.
“That is a shocking statistic and it highlights that although many lawyers talk a good game when it comes to diversity, it seems that money talks – and for the most part, it only speaks to other men.”
The research also found that for women, results were the key factor in choosing counsel. However, for men, relationships and reputation were more important.
“[The consequences of this] for unconscious bias are startling,” she said. “If relationships and reputations are the decisive factors, how could any new entrants that do not conform to historical biases make a mark?”
Ms Patel continued that these figures were hard is to reconcile with the innovation taking place in the profession: “Lawyers are modernising processes, technology and training methods, reimagining the very role of a lawyer. It seems that innovation in systems, process, models, technology should result in an open mindedness should blow the old cobwebs away.
“However, the unconscious bias towards the status quo is so deep that even the very new innovators and models within the profession, that are expanding at a rapid rate are failing to address diversity.
“Just look at the leadership and ownership structures of the leaders within the alternative legal service providers (ALSP) market.”
There were, she said, very few ALSPs that were women owned/run, and even fewer operating in the FTSE 250/500 market. There were also not many with over 30% representation at board level or women at equity level.
“It is essential to note that if general counsels and in-house lawyers fall into, and retain, their old spending patterns, we risk rebuilding the inequalities that weighed down the profession for centuries on top of our new, agile, tech-enabled, client-focused ecosystem.
“In-house lawyers have great power to guide the direction in which our profession develops by voting with their wallets, but they must ask themselves: do my choices reflect the profession I want to see, and the one that clients deserve?”
Research published to mark International Women’s Day found that average employee productivity growth was higher for companies with three or more women at board level, compared to those with one or no female directors. This translated into higher profits, as well as higher dividends.
Ms Patel said: “There is no longer any excuse for legal to ignore the lessons that other professions are learning – albeit slowly and sometimes painfully – about gender diversity.
“Unconscious bias must be overcome if we are to achieve the profession we, and our clients, deserve.”