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U.K.'s Women Equity Partner Rate Is Abysmal (Worse than in the U.S.)

Vivia Chen

October 24, 2012

© Elnur - Fotolia.comIs there a special virus that's just attacking women at law firms, crippling their ability to rise to the top? You'd think so, judging by how pathetic the situation seems to be for women lawyers everywhere.

If you thought my recent report on NAWL's 2012 study about women in the American legal profession was a downer, this report about our sisters in the United Kingdom will make you feel far worse (or better, if you believe misery loves company). The Lawyer reports that women make up just 9.4 percent of equity partners and 23.5 percent of all partners (equity and nonequity) at the largest 100 U.K. law firms based on revenue.

Shall I say that louder? Women haven't even hit the 10 percent equity mark in the land of the Queen! That certainly mutes our lament about that stagnant 15 percent equity rate for American female partners.

As in this country, no one can pinpoint a reason for the big lag in women equity partners. King & Spalding partner Suzanne Rab, who's also worked for Freshfields and Slaughter and May, told The Lawyer:

It’s tempting to say that this is because of a 24/7 culture or an ‘all boys’ network, but I think that’s quite superficial. I think it’s more to do with the fact that the legal profession is very slow to change—it changes slower than society—and these are places of traditionalism. Change normally only happens if it makes business sense—why would a firm in a relatively good position like the Magic Circle want to change? It takes real courage to change something that may not be perceived to be broken.

The Magic Circle firms tend to be the more "progressive" places, where women exceed that 10 percent equity rate, though not by much. In the elite Magic Circle, "female lawyers constituted 14.6 percent of total partners and around 13.5 percent of equity partners in the 2011–12 financial year."  Slaughter and May had the highest rate of female equity partners at 17.4 percent, while Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer had the lowest at 12 percent.

Some U.K. firms have made noises about their plans to increase female partnership. Just recently, The Times reportd that Hogan Lovells announced a 10-year target, aiming for 25 percent female partners by 2017 and 30 percent by 2022 (it currently has 21 percent women partners, though it's not clear how many are equity.) And back in 2009, Clifford Chance, which reports 12 percent female equity partners for 2011, pledged as a long-term target to fill 30 percent of its partnership with women.

Such lofty goals. But how about just matching that pathetic little 15 percent female equity partner rate we have in the USA as a start?

Correction: The original post stated that Slaughter and May's "female lawyers constituted 14.6 percent of total partners and around 13.5 percent of equity partners" for 2011 to 2012. The firm has 17.4 percent female equity partners. We regret the error.

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Those goals are pretty disappointing given how many women are in the profession and law schools. I guess we're supposed to be happy that a quota was instituted, but I can't help but wonder if it's a limit. Also, what exactly are they doing to achieve these lofty goals.
I guess I'll get a tiny bit of comfort in the fact that the business model is as dinosaur as the attitudes the statistics show.

I think it will take more than suits by individuals to change law firms.In 1994, Rena Weeks, a secretary at Baker & McKenzie, got a judgment in excess of $ 7 million against the firm for sexual harassment..

But law firms didn't change.

In 2003 when women lawyers at Holland & Knight complained about a male partner's conduct, he was reprimanded -- and several months later received a promotion into firm management.


I think it will take a class action that brings significant exposure and embarassment to a BIglaw before true change will begin.

There is a definite lawsuit if the story holds water against some of the law institutions that allow this to continue. It usually takes one lawsuit to bring attention to the discrepancy. That will usually launch others to do the same and pretty soon there will be a class action. Stories like these help the plaintiffs make their case.

Tradition is a ratiionalizaiton. It's sexism. During a discussion of the partnership potential of a female litigation associate at the branch office of an AmLaw 50 firm, the head of the office said, "There will never be a female litigation partner here because women can't f**k like men."

Another example of blatant sexism at a different BigLaw, was the partner who was so exasperated at a female associate that he unzipped, pulled out his penis and said, "The only thing you're good for is to suck my d**ck."

I included the last incident in my legal thriller Terminal Ambition that revolves around sexual harassment and discrimination in BigLaw. A reviewer dinged the book as being unbelievable and the incident as "preposterous." If only . . .

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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