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Women in Law: Myth busting

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 third blog post focusing on the report 'The Class of 2002: Women in Law' we look at debunking some commonly held myths surrounding diversity within law. To read the full report download here.

Diversity – dispelling some of the myths

Before I embarked on my research I was aware of the complexity. Many have tried to find the solution. Much has been written. I didn’t know what I was going to find. This is an emotive topic, it is one that I entered into with some trepidation, particularly given this was a very personal journey for me. I sought to challenge my own assumptions and presumptions at every step.

There are many factors that come together to cause the statistics that we see. It is a systemic issue and it requires systemic solutions. In dispelling these myths I am not downplaying them. For some women these might have been the driving force out of the profession. However, the results of my research suggest that this is not the main reason that the Class of 2002 aren’t equally represented at partner or GC level and by focusing on some of these issues we fail to dig deeper and ask the more challenging questions.

It’s about access to work

It is often posited that one of the reasons that women don’t make it to partner level is because they don’t have access to the best work. In our survey, both men and women felt they had access to work that was at least as challenging as that of their peers. Indeed, nobody felt they had suffered in this area. Of course the perception of what you receive and the reality might be different.

We didn’t stop at the survey and conducted a large number of qualitative interviews. This reason was not given in interviews and the women we spoke to said they had access to challenging work. Some women interviewed highlighted that transactional work became more complex when having children, something discussed later in this article. Others mentioned the need to have a sponsor, not to provide work, but to fight their corner and provide guidance.

It’s about role models

Another reason that is often given for the statistics is that women fail to see role models in partner and GC roles. There has been an effort to use role models as a solution.

We found that women were less likely to see someone like them in a partner role, but it wasn’t a bar to their becoming a partner.

Who would be a role model for me? Another female? Another female with children? Another female with children and a husband who works? The list of possibilities is endless. For me, providing role models suggests we are all alike and risks focusing on something visible or known (like gender, or sexuality).

The role models I have had (organically) in my career have been: a male Ambassador who demonstrated great empathy and allyship; and a male partner at a law firm who used to block out time to drop his children at school. Neither of these would have been “chosen” to be role models for me, nor on paper did they have any obvious link with me (other than where they worked).

Again, we found that having a sponsor was seen as important. If someone internally supported you, you were more likely to be successful. Those females who had a sponsor found their path to partnership easier. This was also true for the men.

There was a suggestion however, that this sponsorship falls away once you “make it”. That came with its own challenges. It was noted that this sponsorship was often organic and informal in nature.

They go off and have kids

One senior woman that I spoke to said that the figures were inevitable because all the women “go off and have kids”. Having children made partnership less attractive to women, BUT it didn’t make them less ambitious AND they stayed.

73% of the Class of 2002 stayed in law, and there was an equal pool of men and women who remained in private practice. This was not reflected in those who had become partner: it was not as a result of women disappearing though.

Having children was something that we focused on. The majority of the Class of 2002 who answered the survey had children. Women found it harder to work the hours needed to be partner after having children. This was supported by the qualitative research undertaken. Women were more likely to want more freedom after having children and women were more likely than men to have formally changed their working patterns.

All of this points to children being the cause. However, the literature shows that children are not the reason, rather a culture of overwork that forces women to take accomodations. Also, and more importantly, the 24/7 culture harms both sexes. A lot of women had chosen not to work those hours, men felt unable to make that choice. This element of choice is fundamental to my overall conclusion.

Women aren’t ambitious

One piece of research (referenced in our report) describes how the sector often views leadership based on characteristics that are traditionally seen as ‘male’ such as being decisive, strong and assertive. This research goes on to say that it is assumed that women do not want to become partners and are not ambitious. There is also a presumption that female solicitors want children and as a result are considered less committed and therefore less valuable.

Ambition was highlighted as the top trait for a partner by both men and women and also by partners of their fellow partners. 57% of men identified with this trait vs. 50% of women, so we didn’t find an ambition gap in our survey. Women and men described themselves as ambitious in equal measure.

Perhaps women are ambitious for something other than partnership, or partnership doesn’t align with their ambition. This is something that needs to form part of the bigger conversation that we see as key to addressing the lack of equal female leadership in law.

To read the full report download here.

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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.

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