Where are the women law firm leaders?

Just eight women hold senior management roles in the UK’s top 50 firms despite females dominating the profession at entry level. How can that gulf be closed and what career steps will make the top more reachable? We asked today’s leaders.

Gender in law firms is a hot topic, and with a growing number of firms publishing diversity targets, it is starting to feel like the UK’s leading law firms are scrambling to hit the magic 30 per cent female partner ratio. Which means senior law firm management will soon be full of female lawyers, right?


Despite a growing number of firms pledging to improve their gender diversity credentials, the most recent data from The Lawyer’s UK 200 shows that just 19 per cent of the total partnership roles in the top 20 firms are held by women.

This stands in stark contrast to the fact that for the past 20 years the majority (60 per cent) of new entrants into the UK legal profession were women.

Only two female partners are currently in senior leadership roles in the UK top 20 firms: Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) CEO Sonya Leydecker and CMS Cameron McKenna senior partner Penelope Warne.

A third, Berwin Leighton Paisner managing partner elect Lisa Mayhew, was elected earlier this year but is yet to start her term.

The balance is barely any better in the UK’s top 50 firms. There, eight women hold management roles.

Along with the above trio, Addleshaw Goddard senior partner Monica Burch, Stephenson Harwood CEO Sharon White, Withers managing director Margaret Robertson, Trowers & Hamlins senior partner Jennie Gubbins and Shoosmiths’ CEO Claire Rowe complete the line-up.

Whether it was being in the right place at the right time or through sheer willpower, these women have successfully risen through the ranks to the very top.

How did they do it? And what insights can they offer to anyone also considering a leadership role?

This feature offers a snapshot of the UK market direct from the remarkably few current female law firm leaders.

Women Leaders article image

Too little, too late
The issue of whether there is a broken pipeline to partnership or senior management for women in the law was the subject of an energetic debate last month at the Global Law Summit, the London event celebrating 800 years of Magna Carta and the rule of law.

A panel session chaired by The Lawyer editor Catrin Griffiths and featuring co-founder of independent female network Women in Law (WILL) Sascha Grimm, Reed Smith partner Tamara Box, EY partner Philip Goodstone, strategy consultancy Skarbek Associates board member Sylvie Watts, and Virgin Money head of group treasury Sophie Chandauka discussed whether or not there was a “will and a momentum” within firms to change their culture regarding gender diversity.

During the Q&A following the debate, Yum! general counsel Sarah Nelson-Smith neatly summed up the issues from a client point of view when she recalled, “In our last panel review we met more people named Mark than women”.

Nelson-Smith’s comment highlights the fact that clients are one of the biggest forces pushing the gender diversity agenda in law firms. Many are increasingly motivating firms to improve their targets to mirror their own internal setup. But the data suggests that fundamental change is still some way off.

“The change will happen,” Goodstone commented at the GLS. “The bit I’m most realistic about is how long it takes. It won’t be led by HR teams, it will be led by leadership.”

But how to grow the number of female leaders? All of the leaders included in this article reached the top by a variety of routes, often a function of the varying strategies of their respective firms.

For HSF’s Leydecker, international expansion played a pivotal role. After the merger between legacy firms Herbert Smith and Freehills in 2013, the newly merged firm restructured its management to reflect its international combination.

Head of disputes Leydecker was appointed co-CEO alongside Australian Freehills managing partner Mark Rigotti after joint CEOs Gavin Bell and David Willis stepped down from their roles.

For Burch at Addleshaws the first rung on the ladder was securing a place on the management committee in 2002, while CMS’ Warne stepped into the senior partner role in 2014, replacing Dick Tyler after a raft of office openings and team hiring prior to the firm’s merger with Dundas & Wilson last year.

Trowers’ Gubbins says that when she started her career, the idea of management roles played no part in her career vision. But once she became involved in her firm’s trainee solicitors committee early in her career, that triggered her progress into management.

Got to have faith
A big part of what drove these women into senior roles was their drive and confidence in their performance.

That is reflected in the fact they were all closely involved in the management of their respective practice areas and displayed an active interest in developing their firms’ external and internal profiles.

That confidence is also evident in what this group of highly motivated lawyers say about their willingness to stand out from an often male-dominated crowd.

“It never really bothered me, being noticed,” Burch admits. “If you’re going to stand [for election], you have to be prepared to lose. It can be a really public loss. Provided you accept that, it helps you prepare.”

While the legal market might not be quite the bear pit it was decades ago, it would be foolish to suppose gender bias, prejudice and discrimination has been entirely abolished.

As WILL’s Grimm puts it, “I think it’s probably better than it used to be but it’s less overt now. What is now passed off as banter still goes on. You’ll speak to so many women who say, ‘I have never been discriminated against because of gender’, and then they list off five things that have happened to them. They don’t want to be seen as a victim and discrimination is seen as a dirty word.”

Virgin Money’s Chandauka agrees.

“While I think businesses have a moral imperative to get it right, I don’t think they do,” she says. “As a woman you may find yourself in a testosterone-filled boardroom. Until we get more women into the boardroom, you won’t get the subject discussed as you want it to be.”

Leydecker insists things have improved since her time as partner, partly because bias or overtly sexist language “is not tolerated” now.

“In the City it was a tough environment at one time,” she recalls. “Inappropriate behaviour and language were common. The business environ-ment is much more benign now.”

Even so, other problems persist. Unconscious bias, for example, continues to be an issue and has increasingly become a major theme in firms’ gender diversity programmes.

And as even the law firm leaders included here admit, unconscious bias is a problem that everyone in management, not just men, must be aware of.

Burch recalls: “Before I became a senior partner I took my team out for a Christmas lunch. I took out some associates, looked around the table and realised we were all female. I thought, ‘am I not practising what I’m preaching’?”

Magic number
The culture may be improving, but what else is required? Hitting a target is one thing; maintaining gender diversity levels is another.

Take Kingsley Napley, a firm that – uniquely – has female managing and senior partners.

A total of 78 per cent of the qualified lawyers and fee-earners at Kingsley Napley are women while 75 per cent of its total staff, including fee-earners, are women.

Managing partner Linda Woolley says that she is “quite surprised” by the diversity targets firms such as Norton Rose Fulbright, Taylor Wessing, Berwin Leighton Paisner, Baker & McKenzie, Herbert Smith Freehills, Linklaters, Pinsent Masons and Allen & Overy have introduced to improve the gender balance at partnership level.

“We’ve never said we want to get more women into partnership,” she says, adding that the change at the firm occurred organically thanks to what she describes as an encouraging environment.

In fact the problem for Kingsley Napley now is to make sure that the firm continues to attract male talent.

“You want to make sure that you’re attracting a spread of people,” she says.

Leydecker’s firm is among those setting targets to increase female representation in partnership.

“I’m not a fan of quotas, they are demotivating for women,” she argues. “I think targets are the way to go. They concentrate the mind on the problem of how to get to that target. They require much more careful monitoring of progress, and that in itself makes a difference.”  

CMS senior partner Penelope Warne agrees.

“I don’t know whether I believe in quotas. I believe in targets,” she comments. “Our board has 15 members, and more than 30 per cent are female. That just happened, it wasn’t designed.”

Face the change
Is moving between firms a factor in honing leadership credentials? Of the eight women partners currently in senior management roles in the UK top 50 firms, three (Warne, Mayhew and Burch) have worked at other firms at some point in their careers.

Warne spent five years at Slaughter and May as a newly qualified lawyer. Mayhew joined as a partner from Jones Day. Burch re-joined legacy Theodore Goddard after a year working for now-defunct US firm Dewey Ballantine in New York.

Diversity schemes may be in vogue now, but none of the women currently in management roles had the advantage of networks or targets. On the other hand, they did have mentors.

Gubbins’ mentor was Trowers’ former senior partner Donald Jones. Woolley’s was litigation partner Stephen Pollard, currently at WilmerHale. Burch’s mentor was former partner Maré Stacey, formerly of Theodore Goddard.

“There has been a lot of really strong mentoring and great encouragement,” confirms Gubbins. “The fact that I was female was never an issue.”

Out of the women in management interviewed for this article, three (Warne, Burch and Leydecker) are actively involved in mentoring or networks within their firms.

“You can’t force anyone to do that and believe in it,” Grimm points out. “Just because someone’s female doesn’t mean they have this in-built concern to pull associates through to senior roles. In reality it should be a concern for both senior men and women.”

Leydecker says she aims to be a champion for women wanting to reach management roles – which she believes is part of her role to “leave the firm in a better position in terms of diversity than when I started”.

“I try to use the fact that I’m a woman CEO to encourage others to go for partnership or take on management roles,” she says. “Just being a woman in the role makes a difference. It is visible proof that there is no glass ceiling, that the firm is a place where women can succeed.”

Warne says it is important not only to support women at board level, but also to support diversity for juniors and right through the firm.

“You really fail if you are just focusing on diversity at the top,” she comments.

But what does the next generation of potential leaders really want from their current leaders?

“I think the first thing to do is to wipe out any assumptions about the women at the firm, not to assume that they want to leave and have children,” Grimm says. “Engage in a dialogue with them. Reassess your promotion programme. If there was more dialogue and encouragement, I think many women would stay.”

Five tips for women who want to be in management

1. Attitude is everything. Confidence in your abilities to perform as a manager and as a lawyer is a crucial personality trait.

2. People management is vital in senior roles. The majority of women in senior law firm management were involved in recruiting the teams in their practice areas.

3. Be a great networker. Whether internally or outside of the office, make the effort to meet and talk to new people. It does make a significant difference in career progression.

4. Be bold. Many firms are now claiming to be more transparent and innovative about career progression. Put that to the test. Explore promotions when working flexibly.

5. Find a mentor. Whether it is a department head or someone in management, many others have already trod the path to senior roles. They are usually more than happy to share their knowledge


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