Law firms call for sponsorship to boost female career progression

The power of sponsorship, agile working and greater male engagement in boosting women’s career prospects were the key takeaways from a recent event launching the IBA Legal Policy and Research Unit's Women in Commercial Legal Practice report.

The event, held on 21 March, featured a panel discussion on the report’s findings and several panellists took the opportunity to highlight the need for law firms to roll out structured sponsorship programmes.

‘If there was one thing that I think could really change the progression and the pace of progression of women through the profession, I think it's definitely sponsorship,’ Kiran Sharma, Lead Partner of Ropes & Gray’s London Women’s Forum, told Global Insight following the panel discussion. 

Above: Christine Blacklaws, Vice-President, Law Society of England and Wales

Nick Turner, Global Diversity Partner at Herbert Smith Freehills, says his firm has already seen the logic behind developing a fully-fledged sponsorship programme.

‘What we've found in this kind of journey through the targets is that you can promote, but you've actually then got to sustain and grow, and if you want people actually getting into the equity and beyond you've got to really help them out at that early stage,’ he says. ‘Now we are trying to make it far more systematic within the structure that every partner should have a sponsor. Somebody is allocated that responsibility, you assess how that sponsor is performing, that there are proper discussions about that, you assess how the new partner is performing and is it working. Having that person that will really get you in there and really help with clients is absolutely key.’

Above: Farmida Bi, partner and incoming Chair, Norton Rose Fulbright

Although a number of firms have already adopted this type of programme, Sharma says it isn’t something that is commonplace across the profession.

‘I think as of yet there aren't enough models of sponsorship programmes that work and I think that's just because they're not being utilised and been rolled out in enough firms for all of that good practice to be distilled that it can then be rolled out as a matter of ordinary course,’ she says. ‘I think sponsorship is so important and I don't think that there are enough good sponsorship programmes that really actively target talented females and make sure that they do have advocates and meaningful advocates within the business that can make sure that they get the opportunities that allow them to showcase all of their many talents. That is definitely something that across the industry we should focus on, making sure that every firm has a programme like that.’

“This is not about changing women, not about fixing women, this is about fixing the whole working environment so that the place as a whole will work

Chris Watson, partner, CMS; council member, IBA’s Legal Practice Division

While Funke Abimbola, General Counsel and Head of Financial Compliance at Roche UK, noted that flexible working continues to be a big draw for women to join the in-house legal circuit, the other panellists said law firms’ growing interest in flexible working practices is helping to keep more women in private practice for longer. ‘I think flexible working and agile working has really helped,’ says Farmida Bi, partner and incoming Chair at Norton Rose Fulbright.

She also told Global Insight that more men should make the most of these opportunities to help level the playing field. ‘I think it’s very helpful if men take advantage of that, as well as women, so that it’s not just women who are seen as not being in the office, or perhaps working fewer days in the week,’ she says. ‘I think increasingly there’s a desire amongst young trainees and associates we have coming into the firm that they are looking for similar things. There isn’t the sense that male associates want "this" and female associates want "that".’

Despite recent positive legislative developments in the UK such as the flexible working regulation and the gender pay gap reporting, Christina Blacklaws, Vice-President of the Law Society, who attended the event, says a supportive culture in law firms will be vital to ensuring both women and men stay in the profession. ‘It is all ultimately about culture,’ she tells Global Insight. ‘You can have all the policies and procedures in place but if the culture of the firm or business doesn't support people to actually genuinely believe that if they take paternity leave, or if they work in a flexible or agile manner, that isn't going to have a negative impact on their career, then they just won't do it.’

Blacklaws says that men must also be prepared to join the debate and stand up for women. ‘I do get it that for men to put their heads above the parapet that can actually be quite scary because they're worried that they might say the wrong thing or in the wrong way, but actually it is really important,’ she says. ‘Like the panellists are saying, for business this is a vital issue. That is a message that [coming from a man] will have much more cut-through sometimes than women saying it because it broadens it out as it makes it a discussion for everybody.’

Chris Watson, Global Head of Technology, Media and Communications Group at CMS and a council member of the IBA’s Legal Practice Division, agrees that men must be involved in the conversation. ‘I think there is a tendency at various levels of various organisations to regard this as a women's issue and that men don't really have a role to play,’ he says. ‘But the fact is that it's not about sorting out a local problem, it's about a really important and valuable change in the way we do everything. This is not about changing women, not about fixing women, this is about fixing the whole working environment so that the place as a whole will work. So you're not just focusing on a subset of issues, you're looking at the whole working environment of a law firm or legal practice in the legal profession and saying “This needs to work for everybody”. And only that way will it do everything that it can do.’