Competition for legal talent on the rise: Another reason for progressing women in law

July 11, 2018

We continuously hear that for many years women have outnumbered men in law schools; however, men continue to outnumber women, often by substantial margins, in senior positions in law firms. Despite increased participation in the legal profession since the 1980s, women’s representation as partners in law firms remains very low, often accounting for less than 20% of equity partners.

Law firms have implemented many policies – anti-discrimination, diversity, and flexible working arrangements, among others – designed to attract and retain women. Nonetheless, women’s progression in law firms appears to have stalled.

Last year, the International Bar Association’s Legal Policy and Research Unit published the Women in Commercial Legal Practice, a report examining why women continue to face barriers to the most senior positions in commercial law firms. Nearly 5,000 respondents, women and men, were analyzed for the study, which found dissatisfaction with diversity arrangements, flexible working arranges, and management support. The report states that the term “feminisation of the legal profession” is both a misnomer and misleading.

Key findings

The study found that the most significant obstacles to women’s advancement in law firms are ineffective diversity policies, conservative workplace structures that are inhospitable to work-life concerns, and lack of mentoring and sponsorship opportunities for women.

Diversity policies address problem of women, not the workplace

The report states that law firms generally do not examine the structure of the workplace and existing power dynamics when developing diversity policies. “Diversity policies introduced ostensibly to help women in the workplace, after 30 years, have been found to be wanting. This is hardly surprising given that they were designed to address the problem of women, not the workplace,” the report says. “Diversity policies are designed to help women (and others) fit into the existing workplace, rather than reviewing the structure of the workplace that exists to identify inbuilt discriminatory barriers.”

 Lack of due-diligence when developing policies

While law firms frequently develop and implement flexible working arrangements, they seldomly conduct the necessary due diligence when developing them. Ever-increasing billable hours and technology-enabling work to intrude lawyers’ time outside work has eroded the separation between work and personal life. The idea that the ideal legal worker should be able to commit themselves unconditionally to work is often used to question women’s commitment to their careers. Over-the-top commitment to clients and the firm is considered above all else, even meritocracy.

Discriminatory sponsorship practices

The report also found a level of frustration with mentorship within law firms. Mentorship is important to all lawyers; however, sponsorship is even more important to career progression in a firm: lawyers who progress are those who are actively sponsored by senior partners. The sponsorship process, however, is often informal and opaque, and usually reinforces discriminatory practices. Since senior lawyers often identify with younger lawyers they recognize themselves in, senior male partners typically relate to younger men and choose to sponsor them instead of young women.


Review law firm structure

The report recommends that law firm management, particularly senior partners in positions of authority, conduct thorough reviews of their law firm structure, including culture, business practices, job allocation, pay scales, and professional ideology. “Such an approach is critical to identifying the structural barriers that impede the progress of women (and others),” the report says.

Senior management take ownership of diversity policies

Senior management must take ownership of diversity policies and ensure that practices are subject to review. If law firms are committed to flexible work arrangements, appropriate support must be provided; these arrangements must also be owned by senior management and audited regularly.

Create transparent sponsorship programs

The report also encourages law firms to strengthen their mentorship programs and more importantly, introduce formal sponsorship programs. If such programs are already in place, they must be made more transparent.


Although the report’s focus is mainly why women continue to face barriers to the most senior positions in commercial law firms, it is applicable to all practice areas. If law firms want to retain, reengage, and progress women, then change is required. The issue of attracting and retaining qualified women in the legal professional is not only a matter of gender justice, but also a necessity in the international competition for talent.

Dal Bhathal, Managing Partner