IBA Report: Women in Commercial Legal Practice

Executive summary

The term ‘feminisation of the legal profession’ is often used to describe changes in the legal profession. This is both a misnomer and misleading. Although women generally outnumber men in law schools, and have done so for a decade or more, men still outnumber women in senior positions in law firms. Indeed, women’s progression to senior positions and positions of authority within commercial law firms appears to have stalled.

The IBA Legal Policy and Research Unit (LPRU) undertook this project to obtain information regarding why women continue to experience barriers to the most senior positions in commercial law firms. The outcome of this work is disheartening. Although women’s participation in the legal profession increased significantly
from the 1980s, their representation as equity partners in law firms remains low, often less than 20
per cent. Discrimination against, and sexual harassment of, women continues to be a significant
problem. Many societies, developed and developing, continue to expect that women remain primarily
responsible for the home and children even when they are in full-time employment. These attitudes
are remarkably similar in both common law and civil law countries.

The ever-increasing demands of billable hours, the use of technology-enabling work to intrude
on lawyers’ time outside of work and the continued expectation that the ‘ideal legal worker’ must
commit him or herself ‘unconditionally’ to work is used to call into question women’s (among
others) commitment to their careers. Diversity policies, introduced ostensibly to help women in the
workplace, after 30 years have been found to be wanting. This is hardly surprising given that they were
designed to address the problem of women, not the workplace.

If law firms want to attract, retain and progress broader expertise – women, ethnic and generational
– then change is required. This requires the support of those in the most senior positions in law
firms; that is, men. The IBA LPRU encourages law firm management – that is, senior partners in
positions of authority – to conduct thorough reviews of the structure of their law firms, taking into
consideration the law firm culture, business practices (including billable hours), job allocation, pay
scales and professional ideology. Such an approach is critical to identifying the structural barriers that
impede the progress of women (and others).

It also encourages those in authority to own and oversee the implementation of relevant policies,
such as flexible working arrangements, rather than delegating responsibility for them to those who
most often have little power or authority, for example, non-fee earners.

Finally, the IBA LPRU encourages legal associations and law firms to develop and implement
programmes that encourage not only mentorship but also sponsorship. Mentorship is important,
but sponsorship is critical. Those who progress in law firms often are those who more senior lawyers,
in particular senior partners, actively sponsor. This sponsorship, however, is largely informal and
opaque. This further entrenches discriminatory practices. Formal and transparent sponsorship
programmes can go some way to addressing workplace inequities.

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