Women Law Firm Leaders: The PR; The Vision; The Reality
The Lawyer’s recent article “Where are the women law firm leaders?” stated the depressing statistic “just 8 women hold senior management roles in the UK’s top 50 firms despite females dominating the profession at entry level”.
This is shocking. Approximately 60% of the law student intakes are women, the number of women trainees is also 60%, however the further we go up the ladder there is a drastic reduction in these percentages. Only 29% of partners within the top 20 firms are women and there are only 8 women in leadership positions within the top 50 law firms. How is this possible?
If you believe the PR undertaken by law firms about diversity and inclusiveness, recruiting, supporting and promoting women is a key priority. Many have backed this initiative by supporting a number of forums that promote diversity such as Women in the City, City Women and Women in Law, which are all amazing forums for women in law and those working in the city generally.
Is this all just PR? I do not think so. Law firms have a vision of what they would like to achieve and there is a genuine realisation that there is a fundamental issue with promotion and retention of women in the sector, but how do you change the reality?
A recent article showed that only 15% of women wanted to achieve leadership positions. If this statistic is a fair reflection, maybe we should look at what women lawyers are really looking for. For effective change you have to know the requirements of your audience.
It is also essential to understand the financial drivers of most traditional private practice firms. In reality most lawyers are required to bill between 1,500 -1,800 hours per year. That is time they generate money and cover overheads and it equates to approximately 6–7 billable hours/day. That is time lawyers generate income and it does not include the amount of time spent on management, training, marketing or administration, and although there is some credit for non-billable work, your partnership track will depend on your billable value. Recently head-hunters have been telling me that city firm partners are required to have a transportable client base valued at approximately £1-2million. Billable hours and fee income, which is primarily based on time spent, is the Holy Grail.
Within the billable hour structure it is exceptionally hard for “time-strapped” working mothers to climb the ladder without either rarely seeing their children or having a breakdown. It also seems counter intuitive to incentivise and reward based on hours worked rather than on the actual work done, which fundamentally means that the more time you spend the more you are rewarded and the more efficient you are the less you are rewarded. This is a pretty basic analysis, but not far off the basis of the traditional structure.
It does seem that if we continue to value lawyers based on hours they bill, then the results will be skewed. Not only will we be rewarding inefficiency but we will not be valuing management and leadership skills effectively. Is it time we start to change the “value structure”? Is it time to value output not hours, to value the management aspects and the non technical skills in a more formal way?
Law firms can continue to play around the edges, talk about how they embrace flexible working, support their female fee earners, but the reality is, if your true value is only based on the hours you spend, how do you climb the ranks when you are “time-strapped”?
The alternative legal market is expanding rapidly, partly because they tend to remunerate and charge not for hours undertaken, but for projects completed. There is a general perception that flexible resourcing models lend themselves to better work / life integration because essentially, the value base is different. You can still work at the highest level of your profession, be remunerated at market rates without “smashing the clock”. Again, it is about changing the value system, about valuing output and efficiency rather than hours.
The increasing number of women moving to in-house roles and the rise of NewLaw firms set up and run by women may give some indication of how women are tackling the issue. It may be the case that those sticking with the more traditional structure should look more closely at why these models are not so attractive to senior women and re-evaluate how they measure “value”. Change how you value and you will see different people rise to the top.
Janvi’s article first appeared online in The Lawyer on 13th April 2015:
Follow Janvi on Twitter on @janvi25
For PR enquiries please contact:
Head of Business Development and Marketing
t: 020 7127 2500