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In law, “only” isn’t enough: Fueling “balance for better” on International Women’s Day

October 12, 2019
Aviva Will

Today we celebrate International Women’s Day. But even as we share inspirational stories of exceptional women, we know that dedicating only one day to championing women isn’t enough to effect real change—just like having only one woman on a board or in the room isn’t enough to achieve the real benefits of diversity for a business. To that end, I commend this year’s International Women’s Day theme: “Balance for better.” In the business of law, my field, we need a lot more balance.

The 2018 Women in the Workplace survey by McKinsey & Company highlights that we’re still a long way from having achieved gender balance: Despite decades’ worth of diversity initiatives, being the “only woman in the room” is still a common experience for many, especially at the most senior positions in law firms and companies. One in five women surveyed overall reported having some experience of being the “only” woman in the room; the phenomenon was twice as common among senior women, 40% of whom identified as “onlys.”

At law firms, where origination and client relationships determine everything from compensation to promotions, the “only” problem is—in part—an economic problem. Thus, to achieve true balance and close the gender gap in law, economic incentives are needed.

The “only” problem

The McKinsey study reveals one reason being the “only” in the room is detrimental to women: The “only” woman inadvertently becomes a stand-in for all women—their individual successes and failures serve as a litmus test for what all women can achieve. Women who are “onlys” say they often need to provide more evidence of their competence than others. With all eyes on them, women “onlys” are heavily scrutinized and held to higher—often unattainable—standards.

The study also documents an unconscious performance bias that further compounds the scrutiny women face as “onlys”: Men are often assessed on their potential, whereas women are often assessed on their track record. How might that play out to the detriment of women in law? To cite just one example: When a man takes a case on risk and loses, his superiors may be inclined to see his defeat as part of a learning curve and to assume that the case itself was most likely unwinnable; a woman in the same position might not be given the same benefit of the doubt and may as a result miss out on future opportunities.

Diversity programs “only” aren’t enough

So, why is the “only” problem so pervasive? One answer may be that the measure of success as it relates to gender diversity is not clearly defined. For instance, the McKinsey study found that when only one in 10 senior leaders in a company are women, 45% of men consider women to be well-represented in leadership positions (only 28% of women agree). Unfortunately, diversity initiatives may inadvertently feed into this mentality.

While the intention behind diversity programs is a good one, they may unintentionally encourage a “check the box” approach to diversity initiatives that contributes to the “only” phenomenon. The McKinsey study reveals that S&P 1500 companies are significantly more likely to have just two women on their board of directors—suggesting that once organizations “check the box” they may deprioritize gender diversity initiatives.

If diversity programs can’t go far enough to address the “only” problem, I propose that it’s time to consider a novel solution to achieving true gender balance: Economic incentives for real change. For that reason, and to address our area of business—the law—we’ve launched The Equity Project.

The Equity Project: Balance for the better

With the Equity Project, Burford Capital has earmarked a $50 million pool of capital for women-led litigation or arbitration matters—creating an economic incentive for change.

Law firm success is inextricably tied to origination. To help women be more competitive in pursuing the kinds of new business opportunities that will help them build books of business and achieve the status of a firm rainmaker, in late 2018 Burford launched The Equity Project. The initiative is designed to help close the gender gap in law by reserving capital for financing matters in which a woman litigator is first chair, a women-owned law firm is representing the client, a woman litigator earns origination credit, or a woman partner is the client relationship manager. Financing from The Equity Project shifts risk from the law firm or client to Burford, thereby enabling women lawyers to be more competitive in new business situations, to offer their clients attractive terms, take a strong case from a client that couldn’t otherwise afford the litigation and to approach their risk committee with these cases.

In a competitive industry like law, financial incentives work. Having launched The Equity Project in October, at the time of writing, Burford has in its investment pipeline over $35 million worth of matters for consideration against the initial pool of $50 million. We are also honored to be joined in this initiative by our Equity Project Champions, who are helping us bring attention to the problem and ensure that women lawyers are aware of the capital available. Since October, our list of Champions has grown to include over 20 women and men from leading law firms and corporations across the US, UK, France, Switzerland, Germany and Australia.

It’s time to fix the “only” problem in law. With The Equity Project, Burford aims to increase the ratio of women at the top until true gender parity is achieved—until we truly have “balance for the better”.