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FT data reveal sharp drop-off in female lawyers in senior positions and wide pay gaps.
When Ruth Harris joined City law firms Ashurst in 1995 she made history. Not for winning a case or signing a deal but for being among the first female lawyers allowed to wear trousers in the UK.
“It felt like it was the cusp of things shifting,” said Ms Harris, now the head of the firm’s London office. “It felt like the hard changes had come through and there were just as many as men in my intake.”
But more than two decades on, hopes of a rapid improvement in gender equality in the legal profession have been dashed.
According to an extensive data project conducted by the Financial Times, women are still sorely under-represented at the highest echelons of the industry.
Data collected from the largest UK and US firms in London, using a list derived from The Lawyer magazine’s rankings, revealed a sharp drop-off in the number of women as they progress up the legal ranks, compounded by stark pay gaps between the sexes, particularly at higher levels.
The £28bn legal profession is one of Britain’s most important exports but, like other financial and professional services sectors, remains among the most male-dominated industries globally.
The FT’s research shows that while there are now more women practising law in the UK than men, and just under half of associated – mid-ranking lawyers- in the firms sampled were female. Most firms only increased the proportion of women in their partnerships by a percentage point or less year on year.
At Freshfields Bruckaus Deringer, for example, women made up just under half of the firm’s associated but just 17 per cent of partners, up from 16 per cent the previous year.
Freshfields said: “We know we have more to do but we are continuing to make progress, and we are accelerating our efforts to create sustainable change over the long term.”
Other firms have made stronger progress, with Baker Mc Kenzie reaching almost 30 per cent female partnership this year.
The situation with full equity partnerships – where all partners must buy into the business- is worse, with a smaller proportion of women making it into this bracket.
On average, in the firms sampled by the FT, women make up 19.6 per cent of full equity partnerships, compared with 23.5 per cent of partnerships that include both “salaried” and equity partners. UK firm Eversheds Sutherland’s partners are one-quarter women but the firm’s equity partner quotient is 16 per cent female.
Women are also typically being paid less than men when they do make partner.
For example, Macfarlanes, a traditional UK firm based on Chancery Lane, last year admitted to paying its female staff 75.3 per cent less than men on average, which it put down to a small number of women in its partnership and a paucity of women in senior roles.
“Our gender pay gap highlights an imbalance in our most senior roles at partner level, which we are working hard to address,” Macfarlanes said in a statement. It added that its efforts would “take some time to have the impact that we want to see: individuals will need to progress through the firm”.
Law is a lucrative but punishing profession involving long hours, being on call 24/7 as well as tough billing targets and pressure to drum up new business. Juggling a family with a legal career is notoriously difficult, and making partner as a main caregiver even tougher.
Several firms, including Allen & Overy, are setting targets and quotas. Allen & Overy now targets 30 per cent female partnership candidates and Baker McKenzie last year pledged a workforce of 40 per cent men, 40 per cent women and 20 per cent flexible (men, women or non-binary persons) by 2025.
“Diversity is definitely top of the agenda now,” said the Freshfields associate, “but this job is gruelling. It’s really intense and takes a toll, mentally and emotionally. I haven’t precluded becoming a partner but I think I’ll likely do this for five years and then find something with a better work/life balance.”