How to Improve Gender Diversity in Law Firms

There are now more female lawyers than male lawyers practising in Australia¹, so it is crucial that law firms adopt a proactive approach to gender diversity. It is well understood that gender diversity enhances competitive advantage and increases the potential talent pool for senior lawyers, and what we are now seeing is a real sense of urgency in the profession to adopt best practices that nurture and sponsor women through the ranks to ensure gender diversity flows right to the top.

A recent survey we conducted found women, generally, struggle to attain the necessary flexibility, support and inclusion to progress through the ranks. Women Lawyers NSW statistics have highlighted the high proportion of female senior associates, in many cases more than 50 per cent. Yet the average female partnership representation sits at 25 per cent, with the equity partner average at 18 per cent. The stark contrast between these senior associate and partner figures really highlights the problem and the solution; sustained change in the gender makeup of the legal profession’s leadership will only come from a laser-like focus on making sure women at the senior associate level are developed and retained so as to be promoted to leadership roles.

Thomson Reuters Legal Managing Director Jackie Rhodes recently observed, “In a profession heavily dependent on female talent, each organisation’s success in achieving gender diversity will be increasingly vital to their commercial success”.

Compounding the problem is a general lack of visibility and awareness about these issues for some male colleagues: many male respondents to our survey were baffled at the suggestion that women may be treated differently than men in the workplace. In the corporate world, a PwC survey found 89 per cent of female directors stated that board diversity enhanced a company’s performance, which was in stark contrast to only 24 per cent of male directors expressing that view. 92 per cent of female directors believed that board diversity improves effectiveness, compared to only 38 per cent of male directors. There is a definite gender perception gap concerning the importance of diversity.2 As a result, male champions play a vital role in the quest for gender equality, from sponsoring and mentoring women, to visibly role modelling flexible work practices, and championing equitable hiring and selection processes.

Thomson Reuters has recently hosted a series of Change Makers events that have featured panel discussions that focus on the practical steps law firms and organisations can take to improve diversity. We’ve found that these are some of the ways that law firms can immediately improve gender diversity:

  1. Sponsorship is critical to elevate women to the next level. Committed men must stand up as vocal advocates for talented women.
  2. Demand a diverse slate of candidates for each role.
  3. Set targets to increase the number of women in senior positions.
  4. Create flexible workplaces that embrace working parents.
  5. Encourage and support men, as well as women, to take time off work for family obligations.
  6. Embed diversity deep in the firm’s culture and values, at every level of the organisation.
  7. Develop leadership programs that nurture and propel young female lawyers.
  8. Choose to do business with organisations that demonstrate a true commitment to gender diversity.

With the business case for gender diversity clear, and the number of female lawyers at an all time high, it’s now up to law firms to urgently take these practical steps to address gender diversity, so as to be set up for competitive success.

[1] National Profile of Solicitors 2016 Law Society report prepared for the Law Society of New South Wales

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