The rise of female lawyers to the top ranks of the law continues to be a largely illusory ambition for many. Yet, seemingly against all odds, some achieve the power, prestige and position as the top dog at major law firms.
Take Penelope Warne, for intance. She is the senior partner in major UK law firm CMS Cameron McKenna and is the only woman among the leadership ranks of the 20 biggest law firms in the UK.
Originally from Slaughter and May, Ms Warne is set upon changing the male-dominated culture of the law. She also set up her own law firm in Scotland and had children – all-in-all major accomplishments for a professional woman and mother.
Her law practice was eventually assimilated by CMS Cameron McKenna and she moved into the practice and, with time, into her new role.
But she still knows how conservative law firms are and that the conservatism of law firms is due in large part to the massive size of the business – a £25bn-a-year market in the UK – and that its proponents tend to hang onto the “traditional model”, as she says.
This statistic – which is flatlining rather than improving – compares unfavourably with big banks. At Lloyds Banking Group, for instance, 28 per cent of senior roles are occupied by women; it is targeting 40 per cent by 2020. At Barclays, meanwhile, the figure is 21 per cent, with a target of 26 per cent by 2018.
United States Figures
In the US, four per cent of the 200 largest law firms have female managing partners, according to the US National Association of Women Lawyers.
Exceptions are emerging, however. In May Ms Warne will have company, for instance, when Sonya Leydecker becomes co-chief executive of Herbert Smith Freehills, the UK-Australian firm.
“Things are changing but they are deep-seated,” says Ms Leydecker, who previously headed its litigation department for blue-chip corporate clients. “There has been quite a lot of unconscious bias, with people promoting in their own image,” the FT reports.
The gender diversity statistics at Herbert Smith Freehills would certainly back up that assertion: 17.4 per cent of its equity partnership is female. Before its 2012 merger, the old Herbert Smith side of the business could only muster 10.7 per cent.
Both Ms Leydecker and Ms Warne share attributes – they are respected lawyers yet humble in person. Their analyses of the problem are also similar (including the inevitable quotations from Lean In , Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 tome on women in the workplace).
Both stress the importance of mentoring, and their firms will set new targets for female partners (both firms are in The 30% Club, a campaigning group).
CMS McKenna’s Role
CMS McKenna has set itself above many City firms with 25 per cent of its equity partners in the UK being female and that is expected to raise beyond 30 per cent for the global network.
Alumni of the firm include Fiona Woolf, the Lord Mayor of London, who is also pushing for better representation of women on boards across the City as one of her pet projects.
Yet Ms Leydecker, who is firmly against positive discrimination, admits that management roles – on top of a gruelling partnership career and perhaps being the primary carer at home – are not necessarily on all women’s “bucket list” of things to do before they die. “Women are sometimes motivated by different things; top jobs and titles may not be as important as they are to men.”
Recent research by Eversheds, another London-headquartered firm, on young lawyers’ aspirations may confirm this: 77 per cent of male respondents said they wanted to become a partner, compared with 57 per cent of female respondents. Moreover, 46 per cent of male lawyers surveyed thought law was a career for life, compared with just 34 per cent of female lawyers.
See: The Financial Times