Lack of women at the top is an ‘uncomfortable truth’ for legal profession, says Law Society President

By Hannah Caddick

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Following a recent survey of leading lawyers, commissioned by the Law Society of England and Wales, its President Lucy Scott-Moncrieff has spoken out on the lack of women at the top of the legal profession; despite burgeoning numbers of women entering the profession, very few women are appointed partners and even fewer make it into the boardroom.

‘Unwittingly, [some] firms may be losing talented women and promoting mediocre men,' says Scott-Moncrieff. 'If career progression was based on pure merit, some male business leaders and law firm senior partners would never even have seen the paintings on the boardroom wall. This is disappointing for the talented women who lose out, but is also damaging to the organisations, which lose what they have to offer.’

Webcast interview on women and the law

BBC journalist and broadcaster Fi Glover chaired an IBA panel discussion on women and the law, examining this, in Scott-Moncrieff’s words, ‘uncomfortable truth’.  The discussion featured panellists Helena Kennedy QC, barrister and human rights expert; Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society; Elizabeth Barrett, partner and former Head of Dispute Resolution at Slaughter and May; and Margaret Cole, former Managing Director, Financial Services Authority Conduct Business Unit.

Helena Kennedy believes that despite 'doing well', there is 'a long way still to go' in achieving gender equality in the legal profession. She agrees with Scott-Moncrieff’s point that law firms merely ‘pay lip service to flexibility’ and that this is at the core of the problem:

‘We are still battling with the idea that the only way of showing that you’re […] an ‘alpha performer’, is to be putting in […] ridiculously long hours – and this is a problem for men as well. But women do well until the point when they want to have children, and one of the pieces of work that was done recently about the Bar showed that when you saw a [falling away of women] it was usually in that age group of mid-to-late 30s where women were finding it very hard to do it with a family.’

Margaret Cole and Katie Ghose

But what is the answer? The notion of enforced quotas is controversial. Elizabeth Barrett of Slaughter and May believes the key is for people ‘to start thinking about themselves as people rather than necessarily as men or as women, and identify individual strengths and weaknesses’, strongly advocating the current system based solely on merit. Indeed, the continual challenge levelled at quotas is that ‘mediocre’ women would be appointed over potentially superior male candidates.

But Katie Ghose disagrees: ‘Women and men can be equally rubbish and equally brilliant at things; we need to take the merit right out of it, and the idea that there wouldn’t be enough meritorious women out there to fill the handful of judicial posts that there are in our country is a nonsense and we’ve got to knock this one on the head.’

Kennedy feels that such concerns about ‘tokenism’ are self-fulfilling prophecies in many respects: ‘Women buy into this, because you hear them saying “I wouldn’t like to be appointed as a token women”, as if somehow from the guys around them, there aren’t plenty of mediocre men getting roles. Of course they’re not going to appoint mediocre women; there are plenty of brilliantly talented women out there.’

It is residual attitudes that need to change, and some argue that the place to begin is to force change. Kennedy feels that law firms, chambers and the judiciary must ‘open [their] eyes and look for excellence in unusual places – not the same old places.’

Margaret Cole notes that gender equality is part of a wider problem, that in all professions, including and sometimes especially the legal profession, people have a tendency to choose those that they identify with, be it based on gender, background or ethnicity.

And with this, Elizabeth Barrett agrees: ‘The best argument I’ve heard so far for quotas is actually Margaret Cole’s point, which is that whether people realise it or not, they do have a tendency to choose themselves.’