Law Firms Can Improve Gender Diversity By Learning From Their Clients

In the Harvard Business Review of September 2019, “Women power and influence, a plan for accelerating gender equality” by Melinda Gates, we are reminded of some startling figures as regards to women in the workplace and in leadership:

  • Women have reached 50% of the American workforce but a 20% pay gap remains
  • 75% of mothers (three times as many as fathers) have passed up (or are likely to pass up) work opportunities, switched jobs, or left the workforce because of childcare responsibilities
  • According to a New York Times article in 2019, there are more men named “James” in the Fortune 500 list of CEOs than there are women.

Looking at the legal profession specifically, Acritas’s Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law: Global Report 2020,  has found that gender diversity in law firms positively impacts their success, and there is widespread acknowledgement of the importance of achieving diversity.

And yet, there are not enough women progressing to leadership roles within law firms. The report identified that the main barriers to progression are, firstly, the disproportionate responsibilities of women at home, and secondly enduring unconscious bias. 

This reminded me of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s famous views; that women’s disproportionate share of childcare or home responsibilities is a large contributor to the pressures affecting women’s advancement at work, and that the best way to achieve dramatic change is one step at a time.

At Lex Mundi, we have recently rolled out Lex Mundi’s Women Initiative to Network Success (LM WINS), the first phase of our diversity program. Our organisation counts over 150 pre-eminent law firm members in 100 countries. Together, we are promoting and supporting the advancement of women in the firms through LM WINS.

The aim is to leverage the multiplying effect of the collaboration that exists within our organisation, to accelerate the successful outcome of a step-by-step program that we are devising, working with consultant Debbie Epstein Henry.

“The change that I witnessed over 25 years on the in-house side is truly transformational”

In Phase One, we conducted due diligence across our global organisation, in order to identify the universal challenges that our members articulated. Unsurprisingly, they resonate with the key findings of the Acritas report.

While we also identified some cultural regional variances (for example in regions where help at home is common and affordable, women are less burdened such as in Asia/Pac, or women citing  lack of role models in Europe, or difficulties for women to network due to social norms in South America) these did not alter the headline findings. 

So it seems fair to say that, by now, the big themes when it comes to gender diversity are reasonably well-understood and there are common findings across most if not all research. 

Acritas’s report goes on to suggest that allowing flexible working and taking active steps to countering unconscious bias are essential measures in the remedial toolkit of law firms.

However, I believe that there is even more that law firms can do. While support for lawyers can be provided through flexible working, or funding for childcare, or even having nurseries at the office, well-positioned law firms can also influence legislation through their relationship with regulators and law makers, so that positive societal changes can occur too. This is essential.

“As with many other important issues, identifying a purpose to drive change is also important”

As with many other important issues, identifying a purpose to drive change is also important. Leaving aside the basic premise that providing equal opportunities for success to all, irrespective of one’s personal attributes or affiliations, is the right thing to do, law firms can also derive much benefit from aligning more with their clients. 

I have served as a General Counsel for many years, in several countries, my first in-house role being in 1998 with the Virgin Group, headquartered in London. I have also practised in major global law firms.

The change that I witnessed over 25 years on the in-house side is truly transformational. However, change has been very slow in law firms. When you look at leadership roles specifically, there are proportionately many more female GCs than there are equity partners in law firms. 

Why is this? 

Looking at the practices in-house, I would point out some key differences with law firms:

  • Success is not measured by how many hours are spent on a matter.  In fact, the less time you spend on solving a problem, the more you will be appreciated. This is value.
  • Contribution is judged by results, and more autonomy is granted in achieving the desired outcome. This is empowerment.
  • Corporate clients rarely care whether their lawyers (in-house or external) are working at the office or remotely. They just want the job done, on time, and to budget. Flexible work should be a given. Keeping to scope and delivering exactly what the client needs is the priority.
  • Structures tend to be flat. This exposes younger lawyers to senior management and stakeholders and shows what they are capable of. This is opportunity

Increasingly, law firms know that in order to be successful they must not only serve their clients well, but they must also be relatable to them. Law firms are already aware that clients are selecting external counsel on the basis, among other things, of their drive to improve diversity and inclusion.

But have they thought about exchanging more profoundly with their clients on their best practices that have led to successfully promoting women into GC roles?

In reality, the opportunity to exchange experiences and learn what works and what does not, exists not only through collaboration between law firms, but also between law firms and their clients. This is not happening nearly often enough.

After all, we are all on the same side.

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