Top law firms 'must develop gender-diverse teams'

Large law firms are failing to introduce changes to create the right conditions for gender diversity in their teams.

A roundtable discussion organised by Managing Partner discovered a 'men's club mentality' is still prevalent in some top firms, which makes it difficult for women to break through the glass ceiling and secure partnerships.

In recent months, some major law firms - including Baker & McKenzie, Berwin Leighton Paisner, Herbert Smith Freehills and Linklaters - have adopted female partnership targets to be met within the next three or four years.

While this is obviously a sign of progress, many senior women still feel cultures and working practices need to be radically overhauled in order to encourage the development of gender-diverse partnership teams.

Gender diversity

Despite the fact women make up over 50 per cent of new lawyers, data from PwC shows that female representation at partner level ranges from 15 to 17 per cent among the UK's top 25 firms.

According to the panellists, law firm culture and unconscious bias are two of the main reasons why women are being kept out of senior management teams.

"I think a huge part of the problem is that law firms separate their strategic initiatives from their diversity and inclusion efforts. As long as these two stay separate, I think that we will continue along the same path," stated Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership.

Business and strategy

Kate Wolstenholme, partner and UK business services sector leader at PwC, also took part in the Managing Partner roundtable and thinks the key to progress is making gender diversity a business consideration, rather than an issue for HR departments to deal with.

She believes that linking diversity to an upturn in commercial benefits - clients are increasingly concerned about the issue, with some demanding gender-diverse teams as part of the service - it's much easier to "get traction" within the established partnership team about its merits.

"All-male teams aren't well received by clients, who are often much more diverse on their side than we are on ours," Ms Wolstenholme stated.

With business generation always a key area of concern, even the most antiquated law firm is likely to respond to cold, hard facts and promote deserving women if it leads to a bigger client book.

Mandatory quotas

More and more law firms are introducing mandatory quotas, as they seek to rebalance the diversity of their partnerships.

Part of the reason for this move is that in the previous decade, there has been a stalling of progress in the area of gender diversity, despite the fact a range of initiatives were introduced to help women reach the top table during this time.

Talent retention is a major issue at all law firms, as they cannot expect their best staff to stay unless they are given professional development opportunities. If women lawyers cannot see a clear route to promotion, they will look elsewhere.

This is why firms have to be proactive in this arena and change their workplace culture, or else gender diversity will remain a pipe dream.