According to The Guardian, approximately 61 percent of law graduates are women. In a staggering comparison, out of all private practice partners, women make up only 28 percent.
Where is the discrepancy? According to a 2010 Law Society review, the “lack of accepted flexible working emerged as the single biggest deterrent for women remaining in the [law] profession long-term.”
The solution to these problems, as stated in the review, are increased working practice transparency, rebranding the law workplace to understand and incorporate flexible working, and educating individuals in the industry about the “economic implications” of not adapting to these changes.
And in an industry that is still predominantly male, women are taking new strides to break the glass ceiling. Woman lawyers are setting up their own firms, combatting this inequality with innovative law offices that focus primarily on the relationships between client and lawyer.
Chief Legal Officer (CFO) Funke Abimbola almost left law after the birth of her first child. “I thought that would be it – once I was in, it would be fine,” she said, speaking of how she’d thought she’d have a bit more leeway with work hours, once she’d worked her way up to being a senior lawyer. But, flexibility in her workplace was non-existent. “I was the first person in the firm’s history to ask to work flexibly and they weren’t set up for [it], ‘I felt helpless.’”
Now, there are larger players at work who changing the way the law industry is run.
More than a third of law firms and practices in the UK have “signed up to the Law Society’s diversity and inclusion charter,” dedicated to incorporating flexible schedules into the law industry, reported the Guardian.
In 2007, a group of women in law created Halebury, a law firm founded by Janvi Patel and Denise Nurse. Currently, their award-winning team consists of 35 lawyers, roughly a 50 percent split between women and men. The firm is dedicated to addressing this gender issue in law.
They noticed the “disconnect between what corporate in-house teams wanted […] and the private sector’s bill-by-hours model. What we did is focus on the relationship [between client and lawyer], as opposed to all the other bells and whistles,” said Patel. “And there’s a level of flexibility that comes with that. We don’t worry about how many hours you work and targets – it’s about what you bring to the table.” According to Patel, even clients are wanting more diversity in law practices.
Likewise, Gunnercooke, co-founded by Sarah Goulbourne in 2010, is a law firm dedicated to changing the way that law practices operate. The practice, which focuses on women, has employed over 200 senior lawyers, of which women make up 60 percent. One hundred percent of those working, are reportedly “self-employed and work flexibly from home.”
“One of the things we’ve been told by our clients is how much happier our lawyers are,” Goulbourne said. “Those [working in traditional] models are under so much pressure and strain.”
Lady Justice Heather Hallett, and chair of the Judges’ Council diversity committee, commented on the law industry, and how it has “changed considerably for the better,” in terms of gender equality. She also said that sexism and discrimination was key to furthering this change, as well as, “genuine commitment of those in senior position to improve diversity and social inclusion.”
In terms of progress, Abimbola mentions the new steps being taken toward diversity by chief legal officers (CLOs). A CLO herself, said “diversity is a key requirement” that she looks for in private practice firms.
“I have seen amazing general counsels saying if there aren’t enough women or diversity, it’s not going to be looked on favourably,” Abimbola said. “That is huge.”
Abimbola, one of the many women working to bring gender equality to law, said her biggest tip for women law graduates who wish to keep breaking the glass ceiling: “be brave enough to ask for what you need.”
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