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Advancing women’s equality in law: Key takeaways from a joint webcast

In early July, Burford teamed up with InterLaw Diversity Forum for a webcast to highlight data from the 2020 Equity Project Study on the buying power of GCs and senior in-house lawyers and the influence they can have on diversity in BigLaw firms and to discuss tangible ways that GCs and in-house lawyers can help close the gender gap in law.

Moderated by InterLaw founder and London-based Reed Smith Partner, Daniel Winterfeldt QC (Hon), the panel featured Elizabeth Fisher, Senior Vice President at Burford; Sarah Blomfield, Managing Director and Global Head of Compliance at Rothschild; Patti Kachidza, Senior Lawyer at Axiom Law and Former Head of Litigation at M&G Prudential; and David Jackson, Managing Director and Head of Group Corporate, Treasury and M&A Legal at Barclays.

Below are some key takeaways from the webcast.

What contributes to the pronounced gender gap in law?

Law firm culture

Most law firms have a surfeit of white men in leadership and decision-making positions. This perpetuates diversity problems at all levels. The associates and junior lawyers who are pushed forward reflect the backgrounds, training, and appearance of the people already at the top echelons.

Law firm structure can also be detrimental to women lawyers. The divide between equity and non-equity partnership and the sometimes far-ranging bands of earnings within each make it harder to identify whether a firm is treating diverse lawyers equally. Lack of transparency when it comes to compensation breakdown makes it difficult for clients to find out whether women working their matters are being adequately remunerated.

Caregiving responsibilities

The race to partnership in BigLaw firms coincides with years in which women lawyers choose to start a family or carry the bulk of any caregiving responsibilities. This may mean that they miss out on opportunities for advancement—either because of bias (i.e., they are perceived as less dedicated to the firm) or because of the difficulty of balancing work and caregiving commitments.

Unconscious bias

There are attributes that are more valued in men than women and interpreted in a different way. Behaviors that are deemed acceptable and tolerated in one social group don’t work for another. An assertive woman can be viewed as emotional; an ambitious woman can be viewed as aggressive. Studies show that identical appraisals with different male and female names are scored differently by managers, demonstrating implicit gender bias in the way people are awarded for the work they have done.

Self-promotion

Women may avoid self-promotion and simply expect that if they work hard, they will be rewarded and recognized. Yet women often have to promote themselves even more than their male counterparts due to the informal networks and peer mentorship that young male lawyers receive to their benefit. It’s not enough for women lawyers to work hard; they need to have a strategy, build a brand, and learn to promote themselves in a way that fits inside of their organization.

What proactive steps can in-house counsel take to close the gender gap in law?

Respecting work-life balance

In the 2020 Equity Project Study, 58% of GCs and senior in-house lawyers cite external factors—such as bias, historical inertia, law firm culture, and work-life balance—when asked about the primary obstacle to improving gender equity at law firms.

Clients can impact work-life balance at law firms. For example, they can find alternatives to sending work out at 5 pm and expecting law firms to turn it around by the following morning (which requires lawyers who may be caregivers to work through the night).

Asking about origination credit

According to the 2020 Equity Project Study, 52% of GCs and senior in-house lawyers are unaware of how their law firms award origination credit—a key metric of success and a basis for the enduring gender pay gap in law.

GCs often assume that the person they regularly speak to about their matters is the person who will receive the credit for the work. However, this is not always the case. Credit often goes to a client relationship partner who oversees the client process but has a very light touch and is not the person doing the work.

Clients can have an impact by asking about origination credit, as well as by explicitly bringing out into the open the relationships they want to foster. If clients are willing to throw their considerable economic clout behind a woman lawyer who they view as talented and hardworking, this might fuel success and higher compensation for other women lawyers at their firm.

One challenge to these steps by clients is an apparently general reluctance to ask these types of questions. Many GCs expressed concerns around asking questions about origination credit and compensation and felt that this was delving too deeply into the inner workings of law firms. Others cited a lack of knowledge as to how to ask the question.

The InterLaw Diversity Forum is in the process of developing a toolkit for GCs which will include a checklist for those initial relationship meetings. For GCs who want to encourage diversity at the firms they work with, this toolkit will clarify the kinds of questions they should be asking.

Mandating change

80% of GCs surveyed for the 2020 Equity Project Study, say their companies lack any formal policies that outside counsel must meet gender-based diversity requirements, although many apply informal assessments.

There is empirical evidence that more diverse businesses deliver superior performance, so clients should make it a business priority to insist that the law firms that they work with reflect diversity and inclusion across all categories. This will not only make for a fairer world but also improve the quality of work that companies receive from their external counsel.

Economic levers like The Equity Project can help: In-house lawyers may use Equity Project capital for matters they award to law firms on the proviso that a woman lawyer is receiving origination credit or leading the case.