The feminization of the legal profession is a global trend, supported by the significant progress internationally in percentages of women graduating law school classes and joining law firms in the 2000s. The rate of this progress varies based on culture and nation, and although achievements have been made, each country continues to struggle in maintaining women’s representation and accessibility to the legal profession. In the last 100 years, Europe has modeled steady growth in women joining the legal profession, but has perpetually struggled in correcting the harsh downward trend of female law students accessing legal positions post-grad. The United Kingdom’s (UK) legal profession in particular paints an accurate picture of the progress and setbacks the legal community has exhibited globally during its feminization. I must note the issues that have contributed to female retention and promotion challenges in the UK, including gender bias, lack of support networks and resources for work/life balance, and lack of transparency in the promotion processes, are not isolated to the UK but rather are problems the legal industry faces globally. Analyzing the UK’s legal industry, its inequity, and its attempted remedies brings visibility to the greater global issue while capturing one country’s management of the crisis in the hopes that the greater legal industry will learn from them.
Brief European History
First, we must look at development in the European Union (EU) surrounding the feminization of their legal sector, as observing the legal field’s inclusion of women on a larger scale provides context to the UK’s own journey towards feminization. Like in most economically competitive countries, the legal profession has historically been exclusively male in European member states. The 20th century brought advancement for women in the private sphere across most countries in the EU, which prompted the first female graduate of law in 1917. European women showed substantial interest in the profession, given that careers in civil service specifically offered no income discrimination, better working conditions, maternal and parental leave, and the possibility to work part-time. Over time, a cultural shift occurred that produced more social encouragement of women in law, leading to legislation focused on protecting womens’ ability to engage in the legal sector though anti-discrimination policies. With social and governmental support, EU member states have managed to collectively hold one of the highest amounts of female representation in the legal field compared to 86 other countries. Despite the successful numbers linked to these nations, the European legal field is no perfect representation of effective feminization, as social hurdles remain that stifle women’s success in the field.
A 2017 study by the EU Directorate General for Internal Policies tracking women’s representation in the legal profession within the EU, notes some perceptible barriers to gender equality. These hurdles include, the persistence of gender stereotypes and gender bias, difficulties in reconciling family and professional life, lack of effective mentoring and support networks, and a lack of transparency in appointment and promotion process. These characteristics are reflected in the UK’s own legal industry, which the UK government and individual citizens are currently trying to tackle. They contribute heavily to the most prevalent issues for women which are accessibility, retention, and promotion in the legal profession.
United Kingdom: Recent Statistics & Social Setbacks
As established, the feminization of the UK’s legal industry was a slow and tumultuous process. The statistics from the UK Law Societies reporting on gender balance across the legal profession in 2018 reflect substantial improvements in gender equity. Almost 60% of European law students and graduates are now female. 43% of lawyers were female as reported in 2015. There have never been more female lawyers in the UK, but the challenge has evolved from bringing women in, to retention and promotion of women in law. A 2018 study revealed the proportion of women in the judiciary decreases as the seniority of the role increases, while in private practice, more men than women are able to attain specialization training in their area of choice. Female lawyers are less likely to specialize, are working in areas of law that have less prestigious clients, and are often paid less than their male counterparts. A lack of professional support, as well as gender bias, plague the profession across the UK and suffocate its female workforce.
Women in the field are debilitated by gendered bias; the continuing social perception that women are “more emotional, easily influenced and biased, and unable to see the bigger picture,” which therefore affects their workplace treatment and assignments. Women lack the connections and networks that male lawyers have, contributing to the lack of transparency in appointment and promotion process. Lastly, women are having difficulties playing the role of mother while having a professional career due to the profession not being supportive nor flexible in their need for accommodations. A statistic reported by the PwC Law Firms Survey in 2018, revealed only 18% of partners at the top ten UK law firms were women, highlighting the lasting effect of gender bias and lack of resources in the UK. With so many factors working against them, it is no wonder the percentage of women who graduate from law school to those who practice law in the UK drops to almost 20%. The antiquated culture that permeates the legal industry has allowed for decreasing retention rates and few women in leadership positions to become a norm in the profession. Lack of action by the industry is keeping female retention and promotion rates low in modern day UK.
Progress in the United Kingdom
Government intervention has been a crucial step in improving conditions for women, as it forces the hand of an industry that has allowed the gradual decrease of women in the workplace due to their lack of accommodations. For example, in 2015, legislation, allowing both mothers and fathers to take 50 weeks of parental leave, contributed to reintroducing women to the workplace. Legislation promoting shared caregiving responsibilities allows greater flexibility for women with desires to work.
Individuals within and outside the legal profession have also taken charge in supporting women’s professional endeavors in the legal field. For instance, Women in Law London is an education and networking group dedicated to fostering women’s professional potential as well as preparing them for leadership roles. The organization is firm in the idea that childbirth and family planning is not to blame for the lack of women in leadership roles and rather places the accountability on firms and companies to make sure their own promotion processes value and invests in their female employees. There is also the 30 Percent Club, a business-led movement to achieve 30% female representation on the board of directors for the UK’s top 100 FTSE-traded companies. The Club worked with law firms to increase retention and representation of female associates. Firms engaging with the 30% goal have shown commitment towards actively remedying gender equity issues in the field. Other firms have launched their own programs, like Linklaters UK which has committed to making women 30% of all partner promotions by 2018. These are active steps that the field needs to see more international firms offering in order to address the very real gender disparities in the professional development of their lawyers.
Awareness is not the problem when it comes to gender inequality in the legal industry, but rather a lack of effort towards solving these deeply embedded issues. The UK government’s demonstration of legislative action allowing work-life balance to be more accessible and the individual action taken by women in law to provide resources and rectify the inefficiencies of the industry sets an example for other nations and firms to follow regarding solving gender equity issues in the legal field. These issues are prevalent in the legal profession internationally, and it would greatly benefit women and female-identifying individuals to take a note out of the UK’s playbook. Women’s position in the legal community can be improved through with coordinated and thoughtful action prioritizing resources and uplifting females in law. The UK represents a global issue and a global solution.
Jaclyn Corbo is a Moderator of the International Law Society’s International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School with a Double Concentration in International and Comparative Law and Business and Finance Law. She has a Bachelor’s degree in History from The College of New Jersey.