More women are entering the legal profession than ever before and in the UK they now outnumber men, making up 53% of practising solicitors. Yet when it comes to the senior ranks of the industry, women remain underrepresented, making up only 31% of partners in private practice, just 30% of judicial appointments at High Court and above, and 31% of general counsel at FTSE 100 companies.
Undeniably there have been improvements in recent years, women continue to break new ground and succession from one woman to another is becoming more common. The Law Society of England and Wales saw I. Stephanie Boyce, the Society’s first Black president hand over to another “first” – Lubna Shuja, the first practising Muslim president. At Vodafone, veteran general counsel Rosemary Martin is handing the reins to another woman - former easyJet general counsel Maaike de Bie.
Yet, women in leadership positions remain few and gains made in recent decades have largely benefited white women. Too often women find the job incompatible with family life and the evidence shows they still face a significant gender pay gap.
There is considerable progress to be made if the profession is serious about being truly representative, and in-house lawyers have a central role in driving that diversity. As well as promoting diversity and inclusion in their own organisations, as buyers of legal services, they hold the purse strings and are in a strong position to influence the behaviours of their private practice counterparts.
Pressure on suppliers
Many general counsel are already making changes to their procurement processes to force panel firms to move beyond good intentions and tick-box approaches to diversity.
Last year Coca-Cola joined a long list of US corporates threatening to withhold fees from law firms that failed to meet minimum diversity requirements. In the UK, it is becoming more commonplace for firms to be asked about their diversity and inclusion targets and how they are performing against them. Companies want the firms they instruct to represent the values they hold and to prove that they need to share the practical steps they are taking to improve diversity and inclusion, with examples of best practice.
In-house lawyers have a wider choice than ever before when it comes to legal services providers – there is the choice of moving beyond simply using traditional law firms, to Big Four consultancies and the new breed of alternative legal services providers (ALSPs). Many of these businesses will be more inclusive than city firms, with working models that better accommodate those with caring responsibilities, for example.
My own business, Obelisk Support was founded as a response to the worrying attrition of women from the legal profession, offering an alternative to the nine-to-five, with a new way of working flexibly, with the majority working from home. Diversity is central to our ‘human first’ business model which keeps talented women in the profession who may have otherwise moved on.
The evidence suggests that in-house lawyers have not yet fully embraced the variety of suppliers on offer. Doing so could not only be beneficial to their businesses in terms of quality, customer service and predictable and manageable costs, looking beyond traditional law firms will also support diversity in the profession as a whole.
This isn’t just about the role of diversity in the procurement process, it’s about influencing the wider culture of legal organisations. The billable hour is synonymous with the legal profession and despite predictions of its demise, it remains dominant. It is at the root of many of the problems we see in law firm culture and an important contributor to the lack of women at senior levels.
A move towards measuring outputs rather than time spent, measuring the contribution people make that is wider than just the hours that they charge every day, makes for a more inclusive culture. Whilst general counsel certainly complain about it, we are yet to see a significant move towards supporting alternative pricing models.
Alternative routes to qualification
Challenging the convention that there is only one route into a legal career, with a linear path from training to leadership that takes place between the ages of 21 and 50, plays an important part in improving diversity in the profession. In the UK both the apprentice route to qualifying as a solicitor, and the SQE, were introduced as a bid to increase accessibility, diversity, and social mobility and CILEX (Chartered Institute of Legal Executives) has for many years provided a route into the law for those who did not go to university.
Holly Moore, legal adviser at ITV was the first in-house solicitor apprentice at ITV. She graduated within the first cohort of solicitor apprentices to qualify as solicitors and through the new SQE route, with a first-class law degree.
A keen advocate for social mobility and alternative pathways to qualification within the legal profession she is an example of why embracing those who have taken these different routes into the law, as well as career changers and returners who have taken career breaks, will benefit women and improve diversity across the board.
These are just some of the ways that in-house lawyers can be part of the drive towards increased equality and diversity in the profession. Many are doing important work on diversity initiatives within their own companies and sectors, are developing mentoring programmes and becoming role models themselves, showing other women what is possible.
So much has been achieved in recent years and businesses are more conscious than ever of the need to better reflect society and of the benefits a more representative workforce can bring. The profession is making serious efforts to redress the balance, with improvements to working culture, flexibility and the visibility of women in the profession. With so many demanding change, I am optimistic we can take the great strides needed to get where we need to be.
Dana Denis-Smith is founder of the Next 100 Years and CEO of Obelisk Support.