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Gender Equality Is Still Falling Short In The Legal Profession

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About The Author

Jessica Johnson (Criminal Editor)

Jessica is currently undertaking a study year abroad at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, studying modules such as Law and Literature, The Law of Armed Conflict, and EU Development Law. She aspires to be a solicitor and is currently interested in personal law, specifically criminal and tort.

Accessing the legal profession as a female in the early 20th century was no easy task. In 1913, four women were rejected from sitting the Law Society examinations due to their gender, and took the case to the Court of Appeal. Mr Justice Joyce ruled that women were not personswithin the meaning of the Solicitors Act of 1843, and thus unable to practice as solicitors. Following the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, these women became the first female solicitors in the UK. Ivy Williams undertook and passed her law exams in 1903, and yet was not awarded her BA until 1920. She became the first female to be called to the bar in 1922, and the first woman to teach law at university. Helena Normanton was rejected from Middle Temple in 1914 on the grounds of her gender. She later became the first woman to practice at the Bar, and went on to be appointed the first female Kings Counsel in 1949, alongside Rose Heilbron.

Fortunately, times have long changed since the times when wannabe female lawyers were not considered persons. With more women than men studying law at university, and going on to enter the legal profession, it is remarkable to see how far we have come in establishing equality. However, there is evidence to suggest that this level of equality does not continue throughout a womans legal career. In order to demonstrate how these issues work in practice, allow me to guide you through the typical career development of a lawyer, and the issues which may arise with each and every step.

Step 1) The Law Degree

It starts off almost too promising. Approximately 62.4% of students who undertake a law degree are women, and this figure does not include those who complete a non-LLB degree and then go on to study the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). This majority continues well into the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), which must be taken in order to practice law. Approximately 59.5% of all undergraduate students are female, and so the high number of female law students is entirely ordinary within higher education. The gender gap across higher education can be attributed to a variety of factors including: a) the GCSEs and A-Levels male or female students are traditionally encouraged to pursue, and b) the large efforts which have been made to inspire women to seek out an education/career. The gap is not restricted to the UK.

Step 2) Obtaining a training contract or pupillage

Once the law degree is conquered, the LPC/BPTC mastered, and the hunt for a job underway, a female majority continues to rule the lower levels of the legal profession. The ‘2014 Gender in the Law Survey’ by Chambers Students found that the average number of female trainees within the legal profession was at 57.1%, with 64.5% female trainees at regional/national firms, and 48.6% at Magic circle firms. The survey reminds us that this majority is not new within the profession: female lawyers have made up over 50% of new entrants to the profession since 1993.The numbers are not quite so reassuring within the Bar. Information provided by the Bar Standards Board states that in 2013/2014, only 44.9% of pupils were female. Since 2010/2011, the percentage of female pupils had only increased by 1.7%.

Legislation ensuring equality and diversity has come a long way since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919. The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 prohibits an individual from treating a woman less favourably than he treats or would treat a man, or he applies to her a requirement or condition which he applies or would apply equally to a manwhich is difficult for a female to comply with, unjustifiable, and to her detriment. The Equality Act 2010 encapsulated a variety of discrimination law into a single Act, including the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Race Relations Act 1976, and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. Consequently, employers are prohibited from discriminating against applicants or employees on the basis of their gender, race, age, etc. Additionally, employers are prohibited from asking an interviewee about his or her marital status, or plans to have children. This is further designed to prevent employers directly discriminating on the basis of potential maternity leave.

Despite being well-versed in the law, firms have failed to follow these strict guidelines in the past. Katie Tantum, a trainee at Travers Smith, was refused a permanent position after she became pregnant during her training contract. Her claim for pregnancy discrimination was heard at an employment tribunal in 2013; she was successful, and a financial settlement was reached. Travers Smiths secret reluctance to employ a woman with family commitments is sadly not an isolated instance within the legal profession. Although asking a woman, or a man for that matter, of his or her family commitments in an interview is prohibited by law, this does not necessarily prevent discriminatory treatment once the job is secured. As corporate entities, law firms may sometimes be guilty of putting their business concerns ahead of their employment concerns. Which brings me on to discuss the next hurdle; gruelling and unreliable working hours.

Step 3) Practicing solicitors and barristers

The initial training is complete, and admission to the roll, or tenancy, is finally secured. It is at this point which the numbers of women in the profession begin to dwindle. The Law Society estimated that in July 2013, 48.6% of practicing solicitors were women. Only 35.1% of practicing barristers were women, with this number only increasing by 0.25% in 2014. The most likely reason for this decrease is the inflexible working hours so commonly associated with the legal profession; hours which are not compatible with family commitments. Solicitors may find themselves spending night after night in the office, and self-employed barristers may find themselves having to travel in search of work. Women lawyers who wish to have children are therefore forced to decide between conflicting pressures; have the children as a practicing solicitor/barrister, and risk an incompatible work/family life, or wait until partnership/silk is obtained, and risk the health problems associated with late pregnancy. Obvious ways to tackle this issue would include easier access to flexible working arrangements, and childcare support within the firm such as holiday leave.

Due to both the competitive nature of law firms and chambers, coupled with clientsdemands and professional relationships and reputations to uphold, it is no surprise that flexible working hours are viewed with a stigma. Kings College London surveyed 800 female solicitors, and found that those who undertook flexible hours or part-time work were viewed as less serious about their careers. 96% of those surveyed wished for their careers to better-integrate with their personal and family like, however 44% believed that flexible working hours would reduce the likeliness of a promotion.  Studies into flexible working arrangements have demonstrated a reluctance for employees to formalise their flexible working arrangement, due to career concerns:

[R]espondents identified a privileged view of full-time over part-time workers, with those working less hours almost being parkeduntil they returned to a full-time contract in the future and were once again perceived to fully participate as an employee. Ive seen that over the years with lots of people. They always go on a kind of a slow track, the sidings, and then join the main track again and speed off.

This belief may be well-founded, or it could just demonstrate a lack of self-belief; but these possible reasons are equally detrimental, and equally upsetting. There are professions which emphasise the importance for an appropriate work-life balance, and do not typically report higher rates of female employees. For example, approximately 47% of GPs are women; a career which commonly allows for flexible working arrangements without the employee feeling disadvantaged. That being said, it has been suggested that the current GP shortage within the UK is due to the growing numbers of part-time women doctors. Evidently, flexible working arrangements are unable to please everybody.

Step 4) Becoming a Partner or QC

Once sufficient experience has been gained, and a continued responsibility to the firm demonstrated, the solicitor may be considered for partnership. It is at this point which we see the most worrying gender differences. On average, 24% of partners are women. This statistic is even lower within magic circle firms, with only 18.8% of partners being women. Out of the 100+ firms which Chambers Students surveyed, only two have a partnership comprised of at least 50% women (Leigh Day and Kingsley Napley). Leigh Day have recently recorded a female-majority partnership of 63.3%, and 50% of Kingsley Napleys partners are women. Frances Swaine, managing partner of Leigh Day, attributes the firms high number of female partners to their consistent commitment to diversity:

We are a top employment practice, so we like our own internal employment practices to reflect what we say to the outside world: as a top human rights firm we uphold those values by being absolutely sure we don't discriminate in any way.

The numbers are even more worrying for those who take silk; in other words, barristers who are appointed as Queens Counsel (QCs). In 2014, only 13.1% of QCs were women.

Efforts have been made to understand and prevent this shocking decrease between female law students, female trainees/pupils, and female partners/QCs. For example, the 30% Club was launched in 2010, and aims to achieve levels of 30% women on FTSE-100 boards by the end of 2015. The UK is currently at 24.7%, having been at 12.5% in 2010. The organisation undertook research into why there are so few female partners in the legal profession. Lower levels of women at the top ranks of the legal profession could be explained via attrition rates; in other words, females leaving the profession in order to pursue family lives. The 30% Club did not find this to be the case, as the male and female attrition rates are relatively similar. Instead, it appears to be an issue of promotion rates, with ten times more men being promoted to the upper ranks of the legal profession than women. In order to tackle this, many law firms have signed on as members of the organisation, including all five magic circle firms. Efforts are being made via womens networking groups and training programmes, in order to encourage those considering promotion within this historically male-profession.

A fair alternative?

Obviously, the harsh work/life balance imposed on many female lawyers is also evident for the other gender. For example, statutory maternity leave currently resides at 52 weeks. The woman in question is not obligated to take the entire 52 weeks, but it is available. The first 39 weeks are paid. On the other hand, paternity leave currently consists of one to two weeks (paid). There appears to be more pressure on a man to maintain his work commitments, at the cost of his family life, and yet more pressure on a woman to maintain her family commitments, at the cost of her work. I would suggest that this mindset lingers on throughout his and her respective careers. In April 2015, shared parental leave was introduced in the UK as an alternative (see Employment Law Changes 2015: Shared Parental Leave’ on Keep Calm Talk Law), allowing new parents to share their first year of leave in whatever way they see fit. However, several conditions must be satisfied for the parents to qualify for the leave; for example, 26 weeks of service at the organisation must first have been completed. Additionally, shared parental leave pay is far lower than that received through maternity leave. Consequently, it still remains far more convenient for a mother to take maternity leave, than it is for the father to take paternity leave. Contrast this to the position in other EU countries, such as Sweden, and we see that the UK has a long way to go in protecting the rights of mothers and fathers.

Women are readily entering the profession thanks to decades of campaigning for equal rights in the workplace, but the statistics show there is still much to be done. With 62.4% of law students being female, 57.1% of trainees, 48.6% of practicing solicitors, but only 24% of partners, it is indisputable that something is going horribly wrong. Of course, those who enter the profession now  will not be progressing onto partnership for at least a decade, and so it is important to remember that this 24% does not represent a direct decrease from 62.4%. However, as the survey stated, using data from the Law Society, the majority of entrants to the legal profession have been female since 1993. 21 years later, and we are yet to see this majority reflected in the higher ranks.  Whether this is due to employers’ fears over pregnancy, incompatible working hours, or a lack of self-belief, the battle for equality in the legal ranks is far from over. Nicky Richmond, managing partner at law firm Brecher, emphasises the value of flexible work in achieving gender equality:

I work for a law firm that is owned equally between men and women. This is key to the day-to-day operations. A number of our lawyers work on a part-time basisWe try to accommodate people's real lives and ultimately, it's the service to the client that counts.

If we ensure that womens commitments at work are accommodated through flexible working arrangements, and ensure mens commitments at home are provided for via fair paternity leave, I strongly believe we will see a shift in gender attitudes within the legal profession. Just as the This Girl Can2015 campaign encourages more women and girls into sport, perhaps more efforts should be made into encouraging women to smash that glass ceiling once and for all.

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Tagged: Discrimination, Employment Law, Equality, Legal Careers

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