How to stem the loss of valuable female legal talent

With more women studying law than men, why are there not more senior female solicitors, asks Funke Abimbola MBE

The solicitors profession in England and Wales faces a unique challenge.

Unlike most other professions that struggle to attract women at entry level, there are more women than men studying law at university. Of the UK students accepted onto law courses during 2016-2017, 67.5 per cent were female, according to Law Society data.

However, while 48 per cent of practising solicitors are women, just 33 per cent of partners are female. The difference is starker in larger law firms where only 29% of partners are female, according to data from the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

There are many reasons for this shocking attrition rate. As a lawyer working in private practice, your value is determined by how much you bill as a “fee-earner”. This business model has led to a long-hours culture with presenteeism rife across most solicitors’ firms.

Because women tend to take on more carer responsibilities than men, women are more likely to need to work in a more agile and flexible manner. However, research shows that women solicitors are reluctant to request flexible working due to concern that it will be perceived as a lack of commitment to their firm and, therefore, their career. Because of this, women solicitors leave private practice in huge numbers – some may move into in-house roles in industry but most end up leaving the legal profession altogether.

We need to take positive action to stem the loss of valuable female legal talent. We need to work on both diversity (as in women “being invited to the party”) and inclusion (women “being asked to dance”).

By setting gender targets for female partners, firms can start working on initiatives to encourage women solicitors to progress their careers. Mentoring programmes (especially for women returning from maternity leave) have made some impact in supporting “women returners”.

Truly embracing and supporting a culture of agile working for both men and women by maximising the use of all available technology is another example of positive action that firms can take to support gender equality.

I have seen law firms provide coaching to women solicitors to increase their overall confidence in asking for what they need and have worked hard to deserve, be that a pay rise, agile working or promotion to partner. More staff networks have been set up by firms to improve inclusion and a sense of belonging.

Conducting equal pay audits and, importantly, closing any pay gaps will assist gender parity in the legal profession. More firms need to support shared parental leave (something that has been identified as a key priority by the UK government), thereby supporting the many male solicitors who want to spend quality time at home caring for their children. I also believe that firms could do more to train their senior solicitors and partners to be better project managers when leading on large, transactional work, including better management of client expectations.

Having worked in a diverse in-house environment for over six years, I have experienced first-hand the many benefits of getting diversity and inclusion right – with the end game being diversity of thought. Diversity of thought can not only strengthen teams, improve decision-making and drive creativity and innovation but can also improve recruitment and retention and enhance overall performance. This is not a unique experience as there are several studies have shown that diverse businesses are more profitable.

So, what have I done to “press for progress” within the legal profession, a profession that I love and one that has given me so many opportunities throughout my career? Over half of my legal team works flexibly and this includes both men and women. My team has signed up to the Law Society’s Procurement Protocol, committing to only instructing those external law firms that demonstrate firm commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Alongside this, I have embraced the Law Society’s commitment to improving diversity and inclusion across the solicitors’ profession by volunteering at numerous Law Society events, supporting the Women Lawyers Division, speaking at events and hosting roundtable networking sessions to share learnings and tips from my own career.

I am an advisory board member for Women in Law London, a 2,000-strong network supporting women lawyers to progress with their careers. I am a professional ambassador and supporting board member of Aspiring Solicitors, the UK’s largest diversity resource for the legal profession. As a project champion for the First 100 Years, I am supporting an important project that is recording and celebrating the history of 100 years of women lawyers in the UK. I have also advised the Ministry of Justice on ways in which to improve diversity across the judiciary.

Finally, I am also prepared to speak publicly about my experiences and opinions on diversity, by participating in media interviews and public events. For example, on the last International Women’s Day, I was interviewed by BBC Radio Dunstable, BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme, BBC World Service and BBC News. I also participated in two panel discussions, one at the House of Commons supporting Leaders Plus, a social enterprise that enables talented women and men with young children to continue to develop their leadership careers, and the other at the British Chambers of Commerce’ annual conference.

Mary Kay Ash, founder of the Mary Kay cosmetics empire, once said: “There are three types of people in this world: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what happened.”

Let’s all press for progress and make gender equality happen across the solicitors’ profession.

Funke Abimbola is currently on sabbatical from her role as General Counsel & Head of Financial Compliance for Roche’s UK pharmaceutical operations. Outside her day job, she campaigns extensively for more diversity across the UK’s legal profession. She was awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in the June 2017 birthday honours list for services to diversity in the legal profession and to young people.