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The ‘Deplorable’ State of Women in the Law. Do They Have to Become ‘Male Shaped’ Women

The gender equality issue can be solved by having men ‘step up,’ says UK Law Society president Christina Blacklaws, who says the current state of affairs is deplorable.

Speaking to the Guardian, Ms Blacklaws, 53, who previously ran her own firm said “we need men to step up and take responsibility”, saying they are a key part of the solution.

Research published in 2016 found that 62 per cent of female lawyers in the UK felt their gender had hampered their progression within the legal progression. Just over 30 per cent of women are partners in law firms.

In some Big Law firms, the percentage of women partners is only around 10 per cent.

In the UK the number of women, as in other Western jurisdictions, have been women. Since 2014, 60 per cent of new graduates are female.

And the pace of change is slow. Notwithstanding moves to increase the number of women in senior roles, the male-domination continues.

Blacklaws commissioned a series of roundtable meetingssurveys and detailed reports, the Guardian reported, which showed that there was unconscious bias in recruitment and work allocation was the most widely identified barrier to equality, followed by unacceptable work-life balances.

The findings are similar to research by the American Bar Association which shows that women are leaving the profession in their late 40s and 50s.

Many are quitting just at the time when they are most valuable to their firms. That cannot be good business practice.

Long Hours Culture

In City law firms a career as a partner lasts on average 15 years before “burnout”, with a ‘long hours culture’.

Respondents to the Law Society’s survey also identified the “masculine shape of the law” which was a disincentive for women with drinking and sport-talk in the evening.


And a lot of women admitted they only reached senior positions by becoming “men-shaped women” – putting in the hours drinking, playing golf or enduring late working nights.

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“It takes a lot of undoing to think and act differently [otherwise] we revert to operating an old bias, which does lead to discrimination,” says Blacklaws. “So it’s important that there are things like training and career champions whose job is to keep [the issue] alive, most particularly when it’s about recruitment and remuneration.”

Blacklaws believes that having more female judges – and particularly more senior judges, such as Lady Hale, who is president of the supreme court – could start to change the nature of the law.

One Woman’s Tale of Making It as a Mother

The Financial Times reported on Dana Denis-Smith (pictured), founder of the First 100 Years project, which promotes the history of women in the law and who said that the self-imposed targets had not made the changes required.

In February, she called for quotas for the number of women at equity partnership and management level, saying that only be doing so could women break through the “incredibly rigid, inflexible and artificial places” that were law firm offices.

That makes many female lawyers uneasy, worried that clients will assume they have been thrust into roles to make the statistics look good. Ms Denis-Smith dismisses this fear: “Women forget that they’re really good. I’ve never heard of a balanced or diverse partnership underperforming.”

She also criticised the use of salaried partners, which makes the firms’ figures look good in terms of gender equality but are lip service to the real intent of creating opportunities for women in law.

Recruiter Melinda Wallman, who co-founded Reignite Academy, a programme that helps City lawyers return after a career break, said there needs to be a greater commitment to women who have a family and can return to their firm.

“Firms serious about preventing women from falling behind while they are on maternity or family leave should also implement more regulated staffing and client management systems to stop the relationships with important clients being entrusted solely to men, she adds.

The issue of womens’ role in law continues to evolve, but too slowly and in particular when competing with in-house legal departments and smaller firms offering wider-ranging career options.

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