fivehundred magazine > Editors' views > Resistance to change

Resistance to change

Amid efforts to recognise more of the best female lawyers, the reaction from some old-school partners highlights the challenge of shaking up the status quo, writes Georgina Stanley

Right now The Legal 500’s UK research team are putting the final touches to their rankings. I’m hopeful that when we launch the 2020 UK Solicitors guide later this autumn it will show that we have achieved one of the aims I set out when I joined – to boost diversity, and, in particular, increase the number of women listed as leading lawyers.

Given all of the attention on women in law across the industry, by and large our plan has been very positively received by firms and partners alike. Many have contacted me direct with suggestions of talented female lawyers overlooked in past editions. And, during the research phase, most partners interviewed have gone out of their way to help our researchers – putting forward skilled colleagues (and indeed rivals) who deserve to at least be considered for our leading individual lists but who have – to date – been excluded because their names haven’t been mentioned as frequently as men’s.

This has been no deliberate exclusion by our researchers or those they interviewed for past guides. Rather, the comparatively small number of women ranked suggests they have fallen victim to unconscious bias. The male lawyers who have historically dominated both commercial law and, as a consequence, our individual rankings have been more likely to put forward the names of other already well-known men, than less well-known (but no less talented) women.

Firms’ willingness to help us redress the balance reflects both their desire to right a very outdated wrong and a real business need – today’s clients demand that their law firms are demonstrating diversity within their ranks.

In this environment, where big companies want to see evenly balanced pitch and transaction teams, building the profile of the most talented lawyers, irrespective of gender or race, is a business imperative for firms. So surely, it can only be a good thing if The Legal 500 reflects this new market and firms can point to our rankings to demonstrate the recognition of their lawyers, male and female? Or so I thought.

Disappointingly though it has emerged during the course of the research process that not all partners agree with us. Some have contacted us to raise concerns that our plans to increase the number of women listed could jeopardise the position of men.

Their fear is that if we add women, then deserving men will unfairly lose their positions as a consequence.

Others have gone further still and openly criticised researchers in interviews, stating that it is ‘ridiculous’ for The Legal 500 to actively seek the names of talented female and minority lawyers when we should be looking only for the best lawyers, whatever their gender or skin colour.

While the numbers making these criticisms are small, the profile and seniority of some of the firms and individuals involved suggests we need to answer their concerns.

To clarify our position then: our intention is not to add women at the expense of men – operating a one in, one out policy that means that for every female addition a man will lose his place.

Nor does it mean that we plan to add women simply to make up the numbers, lowering the bar so that it requires less talent for a woman to make our lists than a man.

Every single name on our individual lists – whether that’s well-established senior partners, next generation partners or rising star associates – will continue to win their places on merit. They will all need to demonstrate a presence on high profile matters, a strong client base and the respect of both their private practice peers and their in-house clients.

In the short-medium term this might mean that our lists get longer as we increase the number of women on them.

Over time we would also hope that we can increase the representation of other minority lawyers in our rankings. At present, however, there is simply not a big enough pool of black and minority lawyers working at a senior level within firms for us to choose from, so this goal may take a bit longer. Recent research from sister title Legal Business found that across the top 12 firms in the LB100 only 7% of UK partners identify as BAME, highlighting the scale of the problem.

So please don’t fear or ridicule our intention. As I write this, a host of firms are in the process of signing up to the Law Society’s Women in Law Pledge, which sees them promise to support the progression of women into senior roles by focusing on retention and promotion and set clear targets around gender equality and diversity. Just for reference the latest stats from Thomson Reuters show women make up just over 20% of firms’ partnerships compared with 60% of trainees.

Increasing the number of women and other minority lawyers working at a senior level in law firms is a priority for the industry as a whole – businesses suffer without diversity of all forms. All The Legal 500 wants to do is play a small part by making sure that where deserving women and minority lawyers exist (which quite clearly they do) we are including them in our rankings, on the basis of merit and merit alone. Our challenge historically has always been that we reflect what the market tells us – if we don’t hear women’s names, we can’t include them. Our current push is just us trying to rectify this problem.