Stemming the female talent drain

Eager to shake off its long-held reputation as a male-dominated industry, the legal profession has made marked progress towards gender parity in the last decade. Today, more than half of the trainees and newly qualified solicitors in City and commercial law firms are women, as are a quarter of partners in UK law firms.

However, while these headlines serve to paint a positive picture of the sectors’ efforts to improve diversity, they don’t tell the whole story. In fact, while law firms are recruiting women in higher numbers than ever before, they are losing them in equal measure. Rather than aiding to build a diverse environment, this revolving door effect is becoming detrimental to the culture, success and reputation of law firms across the country.

So what appears to be the problem?

In a joint project undertaken by Women In Law London(WILL) and academics from Kings College London, some 327 of WILLs 2,000 members were asked a series of questions designed to shed light on the potential obstacles that prevent women from progressing in the legal profession. The results revealed distinct trends throughout the industry and in turn, provided actionable points that law firm leaders must take on board if they are to prevent their practices from haemorrhaging female talent:

Boosting commitment to diversity 

It goes without saying that gender parity should be a priority for all organisations on principle alone. However, as well as being morally right, the business case for gender equality is irrefutable: not only do law firms serve an increasingly diverse client base, but high retention rates hinge on inclusive cultures.

Unfortunately, when it comes to organisational commitment to gender equality, diversity and inclusion is not particularly high in the legal profession; an issue that many respondents listed as a potential reason for leaving their employer. Further research indicates a distinct lack of female partners in certain practice areas as the leading cause to their early exit from the industry altogether. If firms are to increase loyalty amongst their talented female lawyers, they must demonstrate an unwavering commitment to creating and sustaining a positive working environment that inspires women to grow with the firm.

Myth-busting outdated stereotypes

In a recent PwC study of female millennials in the workplace, only 4% of respondents cited starting a family as their reason for leaving. When posed a hypothetical question about what reason they might have to leave in the future, family life did not rank highly in the responses given. In fact, a high proportion of those surveyed cited job satisfaction and their day-to-day experiences within their firm as reasons they may leave later down the line.

These results serve to dispel the myth that women “opt out” of career progression to raise a family, a stereotype that has long plagued the professional lives of women through the ages. In order to ensure all staff feel supported and encouraged to rise to the top of their game, firms must be conscious of avoiding the common assumption that pregnancy prevents ambition. Sascha Grimm, WILL co-founder and an associate at Cooley, note the danger of this false-belief. “There seems to be a sense of inevitability within the management of law firms and female associates themselves that it is not possible to make partner and have a family life,” she says.

“As a result, firms assume this will be the case and often speak to their female associates, from the early part of their careers, with this assumption in mindthus it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Increasing flexibility

As well as behavioural change, law firms must start to identify the ways in which they can create a more inclusive infrastructure within the organisation itself. While ambition is not restricted by motherhood, the current business model adopted by most UK firms does not support agile working or flexibility. Presenteeism is still rife and rewarded in the profession, a phenomenon that can easily discourage a working mother from progressing through the ranks on the basis that time, rather than performance, defines their success.

According to the respondents of WILL’s survey, on-going career support in addition to changes to the structure of legal work would help to trigger a well-needed culture shift in UK law firms. As well as putting in place the right policies, however, leaders must encourage all staff to take advantage of flexible working arrangements as and when they need them, so as to shatter the ‘taboo’ that is still associated with working from home. Only then will women feel their private lives and professional careers can go hand in hand without one restricting the other.