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Key takeaways: Legal leaders discuss research on women's career progression

May 5, 2022

Many factors impact the career progression of women and other underrepresented groups within the business of law, and to better understand these factors as well as report on women’s progress, the InterLaw Diversity Forum recently published its Women’s Career Progression Factsheet. Part of its larger report on Career Progression in the Legal Sector, the new factsheet reveals disparities in the experiences of men and women in the legal sector, ranging from job security and job satisfaction to bias, bullying and pay.

A panel of legal leaders gathered recently to discuss the findings. They included Burford’s Aviva Will (Co-COO) and Emily Tillett (Vice President), Daniel Winterfeldt MBE QC (Hon) (Founder & Chair, InterLaw Diversity Forum), Banke Odunaike (Head of Legal EMEA, CBRE) and Professor Lisa Webley (Head of Birmingham Law School; Professor of Legal Education and Research).

Below are highlights from their conversation:

GCs should be asking about origination credit

As clients, GCs are increasingly demanding greater diversity on the teams that represent them and greater transparency around diversity data from their external counsel. In-house legal departments are becoming more diverse, further fuelling the push for greater diversity among their partners. Outside pressures also play a role; for example, the FCA has recently announced that listed companies need to meet targets for women and ethnic minority representation on boards.

But GCs need to go further and monitor who is actually working on their matters and getting the credit for the relationship. They should not assume that the people doing the work day in day out are getting the origination credit for the client relationship. GCs can and should explicitly ask about origination credit, and they can use tools like The Equity Project as a prompt to hold those conversations and ensure that women and diverse lawyers receive the credit they deserve.

Law firms need to address unconscious bias

Historic assumptions around female ambition within the business of law further impede progress. For example, studies make inferences around ambition on the basis of the number of women who put themselves forward for promotions or the number of women who leave the profession before they are promoted.

The Women’s Career Progression Factsheet data shows that women often don’t put themselves forward for promotion, not because they lack ambition but because they don’t trust that the process for promotion and career progression is fair. For example, when women take parental leave, the time away is often viewed and treated differently than men’s absences. Women are viewed as less committed to their careers as a result, and when they return, they must spend time re-establishing their position within the firm.

There is also unconscious bias around the review process. One Magic Circle law firm investigated the time taken to review associates and found that the partners were taking much longer to discuss male associates’ accolades and achievements within their yearly reviews than those of female associates. Anecdotes like this illustrate the differences in the way women’s careers and efforts are perceived versus men.

To level the playing field, law firms need to identify instances of unconscious bias like these and take steps to create more equitable processes.

Data will play a crucial role in moving the needle

Uniform and clear data is needed to track law firm progress. GCs in particular want to be able to easily compare their panel firms and identify gaps that can be addressed collaboratively. Many clients now request diversity demographics on their matters.

InterLaw’s UK Model Diversity Survey (UK MDS) is one tool that can be used to uniformly measure and assess diversity, inclusion and cultural data at law firms. Answers to the survey are analysed and showcased on a Microsoft dashboard, allowing in-house counsel to compare how firms are performing in terms of diversity and inclusion.

For further insights, watch the full webcast: