Was Lockdown the solution the legal world has waited so long for?

The legal industry is in the midst of a radical shake up. Many have described the new way of working as ‘transformational’, ‘radical’ and even ‘life changing’. For too long the industry has struggled to give any meaningful consideration to rolling out flexible working as a standard. Part time and flexible workers were the exception not the rule and it was often an uphill, career-stressing, battle that was often lost.

But since the 2020 global lockdown we have seen a complete U-turn on how lawyers are working and what law firms will support. The law firm resistance and reluctance has diluted and the flexible working conversation has stopped scuppering the completion of lateral moves and promotion applications.

BAME and female representation in the legal industry at senior associate and partner level remain poor with much needed room for improvement. We, and many others, have written about this extensively for many years. Yet, for the first time, in a very long time, we are seeing real strides being made.

The U-turn on flexible working – because law firms have seen first-hand that it does work (often very well) – means that lateral partner and senior level recruitment can actively help to improve BAME and female representation in law. Until now, too few females were applying for promotions such as counsel, senior associate, legal director and partner because their law firm structures, targets and hours meant that it was not practically feasible in the long term. The logistical and familial considerations were often the biggest obstruction to female success and career growth because the legal industry just didn’t understand how to adjust. The difficulties females faced in reaching senior positions were made much worse for women of BAME background.

With the radical agile working changes afoot, we have already seen more women better able to prioritise partnership, more readily prepared to consider lateral career making opportunities and consider themselves better equipped to apply for promotions internally and elsewhere. Law firms have realised that adjustment is needed for the longer term. We believe these positive changes will also be felt for BAME lawyers thanks to the formidable efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent months and the legal world’s overwhelming positive response to it. One such example is Allen & Overy’s Ethnic Stay Gap report which very recently published figures on BAME lawyer attrition figures versus that of white lawyers.

These welcomed changes have been felt by male lawyers too. Many senior male lawyers have for too long felt unable to meaningfully contribute to their home lives particularly whilst having young families and for many, their work-life balance had been virtually non-existent. Speaking about the struggles openly wasn’t always easy either.  With a greater tolerance and understanding of the importance of workplace wellbeing and its correlation with increased work productivity, reduced attrition and greater profitability, more law firms are making adaptions that will restructure and transform the way all lawyers work and interact with their families and clients.  Many of our clients are already reporting that male employees are wanting to remain more present at home once law firms re-open and return to ‘normal’.

But, let’s not get carried away. Female lateral hires into senior positions are still markedly low and despite our best efforts until recently, we have – year on year – represented – and moved – more senior male lawyers than we have female lawyers simply because there are far fewer female lawyers – at the senior end – who feel confident and supported to make a change without law firms radically changing the way they work, how they measure success and what they expect from their partners.  But, for the first time in a long time we are confident that change is among us.

Why?

  • Our clients are more aware of the need to pay careful attention to the lateral partner hiring rates and the extent to which cultural fluency and gender diversity needs to play a bigger role.
  • Our clients are also working with us to better understand what happens when you actively promote men and women at the same rate, hire men and women at the same rate and focus on cultural fluency with the same energy and rigour.
  • Recent events have brought into the spotlight a lot of the cultural biases that were – and remain – in play when it comes to lateral recruitment and internal promotions.

In many ways, it is a shame that it has taken a worldwide pandemic to prove to the legal world that flexible can work. Cultural diversity is vital and inclusivity must be more than an afterthought.  We have already started to see the benefits this revolutionary way of thinking is impacting recruitment. Already, there are considerably less females discouraged from applying for career leveraging lateral opportunities. There are fewer women that are disadvantaged in their promotion applications and, law firms are thinking very seriously about how to recruit. Very importantly, law firms are also thinking more carefully about which recruitment firms to partner with to better support their diversity and inclusivity agenda.

You can find more information about the work we do in the diversity and inclusivity space here.  For further information on how law firms can reduce the gender gap at partnership level, you can read this excellent article by Pirical. A firm we have partnered with to gather a lot of the analytical candidate and market data we rely on.

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