One of my favourite and most memorable interviewees while working as the litigation reporter on The Lawyer news desk was Dinah Rose QC of Blackstone Chambers. Here was a woman, mum of two at the time, breaking through glass ceilings to be regarded as one of the best public law barristers in the country. Yet, despite securing pupillage at a set with two female silks, when Dinah first arrived in Chambers in the early 1980s, she told me, her senior male peers asked her to “play mother” and “make the teas”.
Historical sexism in the legal profession means that women have long been under-represented at the top of the industry.
More women than men are now entering the profession, yet in 2018 women made up just 19 percent of equity partners in British law firms, according to PwC, while a McKinsey study from 2017 showed the same figure.
Dinah Rose QC was reluctant to stand up as a champion female barrister for others to aspire to (something that has since changed). At the time she rightly felt she had reached the top of her career through hard work not because she was a woman.
This was a common theme among senior female lawyers and barristers in the late 2000s. Many were reluctant to stand up as a figure heads simply because they didn’t want to be perceived as having reached the pinnacle of their career “because they were women”.
Women as industry leaders
Yet, as with other male-dominated industries such as engineering and science, women need to be seen to be capable of achieving industry leader status. And so, when it comes to securing press coverage, PR and marketing departments must pay close attention to the equality, and diversity and inclusion credentials that they have on display.
The legal press will sit up and take notice when press coming out of a firm is overtly focused on either men or women, rather than being a balanced reflection of its D&I policy.
One large commercial firm, for instance, came in for severe criticism a few years ago when it neglected to include any women on its list of submissions for The Lawyer Hot 100, the publication’s pick of lawyers to watch over the next year.
Another firm found itself in the middle of a media storm because it failed year-after-year to promote women to the partnership. After, the marketing manager told me that it hadn’t even occurred to her that a men-only partnership promotion round would be the source of such negative publicity.
Challenging the gender pay gap
Times are changing fast.
Quotas for female representation would have been unthinkable five years ago, but increasingly firms are publishing targets for improved gender diversity in their senior ranks. They know clients also want to see more female representation, and this extends to the Bar as well as private practice.
Dinah Rose QC is still one of the outstanding silks practising today, but she remains in the minority at the Inns of Court, where female representation increased by 0.4 percentage points between 2017 and 2018, according to the Bar Standards Board. Overall, women make up 37.4 percent of the Bar.
Last year, The Law Society, recommended all firms – including those with fewer than 250 employees – publish their gender pay gap statistics. Just a few months later The Times revealed that if you are a female partner at a Top 10 UK firm you can expect to earn an average 43% less than your male counterpart.
Meeting client demands
Now major litigants such as Barclays Bank and Lloyds Banking Group are stepping up the pressure on firms and their instructed barristers by requesting that they report gender diversity metrics.
In the US, meanwhile, eBay, United Airlines, PepsiCo, American Express, and McDonald’s have all pledged to give their legal work to more diverse law firms.
Legal marketers and PR teams need to sit up and take notice.
Promoting your firm as being a diverse and inclusive place to work is essential for its ability to attract and retain talent as well as being appealing to clients.
And what about the 14-year-old teen looking for a legal role model? The law is packed with talented women balancing family life with a demanding career, it’s time they started shouting about it.