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Women in law: “Don’t underestimate your ability to change the culture”

  • Aviva Will

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to speak with other leading women in law at the Benchmark Women in Litigation Forum in New York.  One of the topics of the day was about building an environment that supports women in the legal space.  And one of the more salient points made by a fellow panelist was: “Don’t underestimate your ability to change the culture.”

As we all know, there remains a significant disparity in pay and leadership representation between female and male partners at law firms around the world. McKinsey & Company’s report on gender diversity in the legal industry reveals that only 19% of equity partners are women, and that women are 29% less likely to reach the first level of partnership than men. What’s more, the lawyers surveyed also expressed the belief that gender diversity is not a priority at their law firms.

This report—along with countless others—suggests that although law firm diversity programs are essential to leveling the playing field for women, on their own, the programs are not enough to achieve gender parity. Changing these statistics requires a fundamental shift in the law firm culture. Until that happens, the firms will struggle to close the gender gap.

At most large law firms, competition is a way of life. Ambitious young lawyers enter an environment where the work is hard, the hours are long and the promise of partnership is limited. And although women account for almost half of all associates, there is an impression that the cards are stacked against them moving through the ranks: There are few women partners; the partner track is intentionally opaque; those who bill the most hours and work with the biggest clients are rewarded, leaving little to no room for reduced hours or extended leave; and perhaps most glaringly, success for the individual rarely translates into success for the team.

While the law firm environment largely rewards competition and individual success, research shows that collaborative, team-friendly environments tend to be the ones that allow women to thrive while improving the bottom line for companies. And in the last decade of my career, which I’ve spent at Burford Capital, I’ve discovered an industry that naturally lends to a culture where women are empowered to succeed as part of team.

At Burford, where the bulk of our staff is comprised of lawyers, women command 50 percent of all leadership positions and 39 percent of roles at the level of vice president and above. We have approached near-gender parity by recognizing and rewarding the leadership qualities that women bring to the table—because our business requires it. In the course of diligencing, closing and monitoring a multimillion-dollar investment, there’s no room for error—or ego. As a result, we emphasize hiring candidates who can excel in a team and place the interests of the client ahead of their own.

Burford has proven that it’s possible to grow and sustain a profitable business while fostering a supportive environment for women. By valuing key leadership traits as essential to our business, we have succeeded in building a strong team while also advancing capable, skilled women to the top of our business.

Without a determined drive to reduce and ameliorate the impact of gender disparities, the current position of women in the legal industry—especially in leadership positions—is unlikely to improve. And while diversity initiatives can be helpful in addressing some forms of inequality, they don’t do enough to elevate women in cultures that still champion individualistic leadership qualities. Thus, I join my fellow panelist in urging women to challenge the law firm status quo and work towards building a culture that creates space for more teamwork, more collaboration and more women.