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Women in Law: Is it a question of choice?

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.

Here, in the second of our blog posts, focusing on the report report 'The Class of 2002: Women in Law', we look at whether for women in law, making the top spot is actually a question of choice, not opportunity. To read the full report download here.

We found that choice is a key factor behind unequal representation at partner level. Put another way, it is not that women cannot make it, they don’t want to.

For women it is easier to choose not to become partner. For men, conversely, the choice to leave is difficult. What sits behind this? Stereotypes. Opportunities afforded to women that make it easier to make that choice. There are also theories that highlight gender differences around what influences when choices are made.

If women choose not to proceed to partnership, and men are unhappily deciding to stay, we end up with a situation which isn’t very healthy for men, and which fails to leverage all the benefits that diverse teams bring.

We found that non-partners are happier. Are firms happy with the choices they are forcing their lawyers to make?

The Great Resignation? A shift change?

In coaching female leaders, particularly post Covid, we have been struck by how many are saying that they want to step back from their positions. They feel they no longer have boundaries between home and work. The 24/7 culture of the professional services firms they are in is too much. They are prepared to give up partnership to solve that problem.

The men with whom we spoke had different reflections. Some had taken decisions based on similar considerations to the females. They wanted a work-life balance, or they didn’t like the culture, or they didn’t feel “part of the club”. However, unlike the women, they felt that choosing not to become partner was going against what was expected of them.

One male interviewee said

I have never really cared what people think of me

but they acknowledged that others might find it harder. They felt that they had been brave to turn down partnership and that others questioned their choice. One man who stepped away from partnership really struggled with the fact he was no longer fulfilling

the male stereotype of being the main breadwinner”.

Men seem to struggle in a way that women don’t. One male partner described an epiphany where he realised he did not want to be a ‘weekend Dad’ anymore. He made the choice to stay, but to ensure that he does have balance. Leaving the partnership didn’t seem to be an option that he considered. Covid helped him to implement changes and he also felt that the changes were easier “because he is already a partner.”

Coaches we spoke to reflected on the fact that a number of their male clients (many in partner roles) are exploring how to balance work with life as parents of young children, many with the other parent also working. Some are starting to think of turning their back on partnership. This throws up issues around identity, with many struggling to turn their back on “being a partner” because that is a fundamental part of who they are.

Covid has changed things. One very senior partner that we spoke to said that it was the first time in many years that he had sat down regularly for dinner with his family. Will he want to give that up?

However, hours don’t seem to have reduced over the past two years and boundaries between home and work have perhaps just blurred even further. Firms are dealing with the recruitment crisis that some are facing by throwing more money at the problem.

Is it timing?

The Kaleidoscope Career Model (KCM) describes how three parameters (authenticity, balance, and challenge) influence the way we view our careers and suggests these things shift over the course of an individual’s lifespan. The model suggests these parameters guide us in our careers with certain things taking precedence at different times.

Women become interested in balance mid-career. The is not just about family but about “nonwork issues” which “encompass a woman’s own physical and psychological wellbeing, her friends--especially if she is single or has no children-- volunteer activities, hobbies, and spirituality.”[1] Men take a different journey and balance is less important for them mid-career. Mid-career (30s/40s) is exactly where the Class of 2002 are. It is also when men and women are thinking about whether partnership is for them.

This model might provide further insight into why, despite the 24/7 culture, men chose partnership when women don’t.

One coach we spoke to thought that one solution to gender inequality would be to think about “bringing women back”. These women would have different perspectives, perhaps gained from different sectors, which would enhance the partnership and take it in a different direction. Perhaps these women are “in sector”, perhaps those who are now in senior associate or Of Counsel positions.


What was clear is that a lot of this might actually come back to choice. Men and women chose different things at different times. Part of this might be changing priorities at different times in life. Part of this might be the perception of choice that each gender has.

If there are negative issues that are affecting men and women, are women are in the “lucky” position if they can say no to partnership? Are they perhaps in the unlucky position because they have to make that choice sooner and are, therefore “out of the game”?

Our survey found that partners and non-partners are both equally likely to be satisfied with their job, but non-partners are more likely to express high levels of satisfaction with their life overall. This potentially suggests that non-partners may have an improved work-life balance.

Fundamentally, shouldn’t we be creating an environment that both sexes want to say “yes” to?

To read the full report download here.

Client Talk

Client Talk is a coaching powered consultancy, bringing together expert consultants and accredited coaches.

We were created to change the conversations that professional services companies are having with - and about - their clients. Our unique approach promotes active listening, leverages empathy within businesses, and champions diverse thinking.

To find out more about our services and upcoming events please click here.

[1] Using the Kaleidoscope Career Model to Understand the Changing Patterns of Women’s Careers, Sullivan and Mainiero (2008) and here.


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