I’m the Founder & CEO of Stephenson Law, a forward-thinking, innovative law firm which puts people at the heart of everything it does.
In the U.K. there’s no shortage of women entering the legal industry, with about half of lawyers in law firms being women. However, as you progress up the ladder of seniority, the scales start to tip, with only one-third of law firm partners being women.
So where are women going, and what’s preventing them from reaching partnership?
Many leave the industry altogether, often around the time they start a family. All those years of training and tens of thousands of dollars spent on law school aren’t enough of an incentive for many of them to stay. I nearly left myself a few years ago, and I’ve heard countless stories from women who chose to leave. And while it was the right decision for them, I can’t help but think what a shame it is for the industry to have lost so many incredible women.
The benefits of having a diverse board and management team are well documented, so it’s clear that if law firms could maintain gender diversity at a senior level they could realize significant business benefits. It’s therefore an issue that everyone would benefit from addressing.
To give you some insight into the culture of many law firms: They operate on the basis that value equates to the cost of time plus a markup, commonly referred to as the “hourly rate.” Lawyers are given targets of how many “billable hours” they must complete in a year, and important decisions such as whether or not they will be promoted are based on whether targets are met. The pressure to meet these targets is intense. Your reputation and career are dependent on you meeting these targets.
I think one of the consequences of operating with such a business model is that it creates a short-term mindset. Lawyers worry about having enough work to enable them to meet their targets that day, week and month, and partners worry about the firm generating enough revenue to enable them to maximize their drawings that year. Little thought is given to the long-term, both in terms of investing in the business and its staff.
Some thrive in a target-driven, pressurized environment. You hear stories from lawyers bragging about “pulling all-nighters” and working 20 billable hours a day as if they’re a badge of honor. And when those in senior roles resonate with these types of behavior, you see a pattern emerging in the annual partner recruitment round. Confidence over competence prevails, as does input over output.
For many lawyers, however, the environment is not one that enables them to fulfill their potential. There are well-reported instances of burnout, mental illness and substance abuse, and levels of job satisfaction are generally low. Combine this with the challenge of raising a family and you might be starting to understand some of the reasons why so many women decide that a career in law isn’t for them.
While the landscape is starting to shift, it’s still the case that mothers assume the majority of the childcare responsibilities, whether it’s taking parental leave to look after a new baby, doing the drop-offs and pickups, or having to drop everything to collect a sick child from nursery. This has been demonstrated by the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on mothers. Female lawyers with children can be criticized for leaving work to pick up their children and may be overlooked for opportunities because of childcare responsibilities.
I entered the legal profession in 2009 as a mother, had another child in 2010 and, in 2014, I almost walked away. I was expected to work such long hours and do so much traveling that I didn’t see my children for a week. I tried working part-time, but the demands of the job made it impossible. Things became so unbearable that I handed my notice in and left the same day, convinced that my career in law was over.
It’s clear that many law firms are falling short when it comes to supporting their female lawyers with children. I’m not suggesting that allowances should be made, such as reduced targets; but I believe that more can be done to support mothers and enable them to have a fulfilling career while raising a family. Adopting less of a short-term view is critical. Law firms need to recognize the value that female lawyers can bring to their business and invest in them accordingly.
Reviewing the basis on which performance is measured and promotion decisions are made, addressing systemic sexism, challenging unconscious basis and having an open dialogue with female lawyers about what they need to do their job better would all be steps in the right direction.
It’s about time women start feeling supported by their employers. It’s 2021, and unless firms change their mindset now, they’ll be left in the dark ages with a lack of talented lawyers and a struggling business.