Supporting organic diversity in law firms: taking the next steps

In May 2023, Marsden hosted two roundtables to progress our Supporting Organic Diversity in Law Firms campaign to discuss in smaller groups the topics already raised at our previous event. Our aim is to facilitate open conversation between senior law firm partners and general counsel to encourage them to work together to create an environment to support the promotion of women in law firms – and improve diversity to the benefit of all.

While we recognise that diversity is a much wider issue than the increased visibility of women in law firms, it was interesting to note that according to some of the law firm partners, their firms regarded the issue of female diversity as ‘solved’ and that management had moved onto tackling other issues such as social mobility, inclusivity and ethnic and cultural diversity. However, as recruiters we are constantly tasked with finding senior female partners who remain relatively scarce (in transactional fields) – and suggests that law firms need to be continually reminded to nurture and promote women.

What active changes have law firm partners and General Counsel made to support diversity in their teams since the launch of our campaign?

It was encouraging to see that since our last roundtable, both law firm partners and GCs have become more aware of their own behaviour and actions or challenging that of others– either consciously or subconsciously—to ensure that women are supported and visible.

  • Some GCs have actively been challenging—or were planning to—law firms that staff all-male teams on a transaction.
  • Law firm partners had asked colleagues why no women were on certain teams or in presentations or meetings, as it doesn’t always occur to people to think about this.
  • Many have consciously challenged the usual practice of women being nominated to lead diversity initiatives and ensured that men were included too.
  • Some GCs were being more open with law firms about how they communicate any team members’ flexibility needs and how it might affect the transaction.
How can GCs and law firms work together to help women progress in law firms?

While there may be demand from clients for greater senior female representation on transaction teams, law firms need to invest in promotion pipelines to make this happen.

  • A lot of business development and networking in law firms still tends to revolve around drinking and sports. Sometimes it is hard for introverted female junior associates to be noticed. What can be done to encourage law firms to think differently about BD and provide female associates with more access to clients?
  • Firms only tend to think about promoting women or making networking events more attractive to women when female associates go in-house (often because they have had children and are looking for a better work-life balance).
  • Firms should invest in coaching their female associates, and—equally as important—for their line managers to also be involved in the process so that they can play an active supporting role in any follow up needed.
  • Senior partners should recognise and sponsor women for opportunities and deals so that the burden does not entirely fall on the associate to push herself forward. Many women tend to not put themselves forward to the same extent as male colleagues and sometimes they need to be supported, encouraged—and pushed—to progress into senior roles.
  • GCs can also help by giving direct and visible feedback to their retained law firms that they should promote certain female team members. One partner noted that they had often received unsolicited emails from clients when it is clear that the male associate had asked the client to put a word in for them – but had never received similar requests from female associates.
  • GCs can also be more assertive when it comes to talking to their law firms about their investment into their pipeline of female high performers.
  • Firms can invest in reverse mentoring (quite common in corporates) where seniors and juniors mutually benefit from mentoring. This is effective where the more junior female associates help the partners with a fresh perspective, enabling the partners to be better and more inclusive leaders. It goes without saying that it also creates working relationships that wouldn’t have been formed but for the reverse mentoring – which can be ideal from a sponsorship perspective.
  • Firms can learn from corporates, that tend to be ahead of the curve when it comes to rewarding and promoting women as they have a higher investment in Board-driven ESG. Private equity and investment banks have started to take more notice since their investors are increasingly ESG-driven, and others are signing up to mindful business charters with pledges to increase diversity across the board.
What can law firms and in-house teams do to encourage better communication?

There is generally a fundamental lack of communication between law firms and GCs; many GCs have “survived” the law firm model and are not willing to challenge it!

  • GCs are often reticent about challenging law firms about the lack of females on a deal team and feel that some firms are just not open to receiving feedback of this kind.
  • Law firms are so governed by the billable hour and determined not to let service levels drop or lose work to another firm – and this means that the associates sometimes suffer as a result. This is a particular issue for firms when it comes to flexible working requests (mainly from) women and also hinders building resilience in transactional teams, especially as the business model makes it difficult to write off handover time. It was noted by a law firm partner that more pressure should be put on law firms in this respect as things won’t change drastically for the better until the business model does.
  • Firms and GCs should be honest and open with each other about all relationship matters so it makes discussing diversity and flexibility easier. Some firms do have client listening programmes which encourage honest feedback but do not tend to enhance the personal relationship between firm and client.
  • Clients often ask for diversity and inclusion statistics as part of the pitch process but then do not tend to regularly review it. Many have had to devise their own diversity feedback questionnaires as there is no industry standard.
What more can we do to support organic diversity?

Continue to challenge perceptions. For example, there is still a view in many law firms that women are taking “long” periods of parental leave per child and that this delays their progression – but in reality this may only be two years out of a 10-year career! As soon as it is accepted in law firms that the parental burden is shared equally without question that things will start to change. Encouragingly, new fathers are increasingly asking for flexible working and taking longer periods of parental leave and this is being accepted by law firms.

Provide active positive feedback. GCs can be more explicit when they are happy with a female team member and feed back to the firm, and not assume it is obvious. On their part, partners should actively ask for client feedback.

Persist. While both law firms and companies feel that some progress has been made in female diversity, it is important for both not to rest on their laurels and keep actively pushing.

Invest in relationship-building. GCs can actively schedule regular relationship catch-ups with their regular law firms to discuss diversity. Once this relationship continues to build in a more open way, it is then easier for the GC to challenge the law firm in a constructive way about its investment into its female promotional pipeline.

Reverse mentoring. Both law firms and companies should implement reverse mentoring if programmes are not already in place.

Coaching. Whilst coaching can be a really powerful tool to help female associates navigate their way through promotion in a law firm, this should be offered as soon as possible for high performing associates to enable the investment in them; it is also key that their line manager invests in the coaching journey with them so that they are able to really know them and sponsor them going forward.

Networking and lobbying. There are (currently) no established forums in which GCs and law firm partners can actively work together, and perhaps lobby within the legal community for items such as standardised diversity feedback questionnaires. Perhaps we need a push towards legislative mechanisms to create equity rather than just equality – similar to the annual gender pay gap reporting required for companies with more than 250 employees, which has forced law firms to start taking gender equality more seriously.

What’s next?

At Marsden we will continue to provide a forum for open conversation and regularly meet with the established group of GCs and partners and widen the discussion to others – for example, several GCs said that they would like to meet with junior female associates without the partners in the room, which we will facilitate. Watch this space.

To find out more about our campaign feel free to connect with Karen Glass, Michelle Mills or Ann-Marie Goodbody.