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The Class of 2002: Women in Law - The executive summary

Herbert Smith Freehills alumnus Claire Rason and founder of Client Talk has been working on a less-than-typical diversity experiment. She set out to find out whether, if she hadn't quit the law in 2005, she would have made partner. The results were surprising.

In the first of our series of blogs focusing on the report, 'The Class of 2002: Women in Law', we share the report's executive summary. To read the full report download here.

Executive summary

The Class of 2002: Women in Law aimed to find out whether “if I had stayed at Herbert Smith, I would have made partner”. I started as a trainee with the firm in 2002, and my research, tracing the journeys of my fellow trainees (the Class of 2002) suggests that I would not.

The Class of 2002 started out as 57% women. 73% of the Class of 2002 stayed in law, leaving a population with a roughly equal gender split. However, of the total Class of 2002, only 23% of women have hit the highest level in law, whilst 59% of the men have achieved that status. Whatever way the data was cut, men outperformed women. It wasn’t that women had left private practice, or fee earning; some did, but so did some men.

The research shows that corporate as a practice group retained the least number of women and had the most disparate gender split. The report finds that the reasons for this were due to hours and culture. These are seen as an issue across the legal sector, but compounded in this particular practice group.

Evidence supports the conclusion that the 24/7 culture played a part in gender inequality at a senior level. There were some key differences in how people saw themselves and how they saw partners. These differences also go some way to explaining why women were less likely to become partners, and it also highlighted that there might be some unconscious bias at play.

Whilst we found some evidence to suggest women are prevented from reaching the top, we also found lots to challenge the assumption that they wanted to get there. Non-partners showed higher life satisfaction than partners (across both genders). The “always on” culture affected both men and women. We found that women feel able to say “no” to partnership in a way men are not. This means the culture isn’t challenged at partnership level.

Firms make allowances for individuals, whilst well meaning, it is a counter-productive approach. They are colluding with the system. Rather than thinking about solutions at an individual level, for real change to happen there needs to be a fundamental rethink at a systemic level. We need a shift in the 24/7 culture and in the way partners are rewarded.

Firms need to create an environment to which both sexes want to say “yes”. An environment where both can thrive.

Cultural change is possible, and COVID has shown that it can happen quickly and employees and organisations are resilient. Models that enable honest conversations to be had are fundamental to paving the way forward. Firms need to ask the right questions and be open to listening to the answers. This will benefit not only diversity initiatives, but mental health initiatives too.

In summary, we are treating the symptoms and not the cause. To read the full report download here.

Client Talk Class of 2002 Executive Summary Final
Download PDF • 55KB

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