Women in Law Pledge: making firms accountable for gender equality

Solicitors might be forgiven for thinking not much else can be done in the drive to increase diversity in the legal profession, but it seems there is more firms can do – certainly in the cause for gender equality.

It is, after all, only 100 years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 came into force, making it possible for women to qualify as solicitors and barristers. The reality is, a century is not a long time in the context of the law (some of our case law dates back long before 1919) and the hierarchy in the solicitors’ profession remains male-dominated.

According to the Law Society’s annual statistics, women represent more than 60 per cent of entrants to the legal profession since 1990 and more than half of practising solicitors are women. However, just 30 per cent of partners in private practice are women. The Bar Council says just 38 per cent of barristers are women and only 16 per cent of practising Queen’s Counsel are women.

Something else had to be done; and making firms accountable for this disparity is part of it. To that end the Law Society, in a new joint initiative with the Bar Council and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx), has launched the Women in Law Pledge in a bid to drive forward gender equality in senior roles and improve diversity in the profession.

The Pledge was launched at the Law Society's international symposium on gender equality on 20 June 2019. Law Society president Christina Blacklaws said: “As a profession which strives to uphold justice, the legal profession must be at the forefront of the fight for gender equality and diversity in the workplace.”

Central to the Women in Law Pledge is achieving gender equality at the top of the legal profession. So how will the Pledge work in practice? Individuals, firms and other organisations are encouraged to sign their name to the Pledge committing to eight key actions including appointing a named member of the senior leadership who is accountable for gender diversity and inclusion; and pledging to set specific gender targets.

Signatories will be showing their commitment to implement plans and high-level targets within their organisation (or as an advocate) for gender equality - supporting women’s progression into senior roles in the profession by focusing on retention and promotion opportunities.

The commitment includes an action plan for a period of three years plus showing how signatories intend to achieve their objectives for gender equality and diversity. These do not, says the Pledge, have to be policies or practices currently in place, but must include those to be introduced by 31 March 2020. Actions, and their measures of success, “should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timebound”.

Transparency about progress is key: it is expected that those committing to the Pledge will publicly report on their progress towards achieving their goals from 31 March 2020.

Champions for change,br>

The Pledge is not just about women: it particularly encourages those in senior leadership or influence – and “particularly men” to become champions of change; “to work towards the positive transformation of social norms and can act to hold others accountable and encourage them to join in”.

What should law firms do?,br>

The Law Society (along with the Bar council and CILEx) has published guidance alongside the Pledge itself and sets out the practicalities firms and others should consider when committing to the Pledge. Law firms (solicitors only) are encouraged to apply for the Law Society Diversity and Inclusion

Charter to help firms drive gender equality and their commitments under the Pledge.

The Charter addresses issues including:

  • The negative impact of bias in recruitment
  • Retention, progression and decision making
  • Tackling workplace sex discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment
  • Challenging negative aspects of workplace culture around billable hours, business development and work allocation
  • Introducing structured work allocation models to reduce bias and inefficiencies in the distribution of work
  • Introducing, encouraging and supporting responsible flexible working models (particularly within the senior leadership team) and implementing them consistently
  • Tackling gender and ethnicity pay gaps

Beyond the law

The Pledge is not only for law firms and other legal service providers. It is also open to other legal organisations and associations (both domestic and international) including those outside of the legal sector who wish to show support for gender equality in law.

The then justice secretary David Gauke (since replaced by Robert Buckland) encouraged others to sign the Pledge on its launch. He said: "We know that a more balanced workforce is good for business and the wellbeing of organisations. It is only by working together that we will improve equality and diversity. I encourage all law firms and others to sign the pledge and ensure there is equal opportunity at all levels."

Will the Pledge really make a positive difference to reduce gender disparity in the legal profession? There is a similar initiative in the world of finance which is proving highly successful. The Women in Finance Charter is a pledge for gender balance in senior management across the financial services industry and was launched in March 2016. Like the Women in Law Pledge, the Charter also requires firms to set their own targets, implement strategies and publicly report on progress.

The response has been notable – and continues to attract signatories month on month. To date, there are more than 350 signatories representing more than 800,000 employees and it is having a very positive impact. Responding to a government review of the Charter, two thirds of the signatories say they believe being a signatory will drive permanent change both within their organisation as well as across the industry as a whole.

This bodes well for the Women in Law Pledge and the legal profession as a whole. If it attracts the same levels of commitment and engagement as its counterpart in financial services, gender diversity in the profession may no longer be a problem in a few years.

The success of the Pledge will be periodically monitored to see how it is being used to improve gender equality in the legal profession and how it impacts lawyers.

You can sign up to the Pledge here.



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