City firm tries to boost women partner numbers by getting female trainees to talk more about career development

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By Alex Aldridge on

Herbert Smith Freehills’ new women trainee network is part of firm’s bid to make its partnership 30% female


International giant Herbert Smith Freehills has launched a network to get its women trainees to talk more about career development as it bids to dramatically increase gender diversity at partner level.

Currently 16% of the firm’s UK partnership is female, placing it 44th out of 60 top law firms for gender diversity in the Legal Cheek Most List. But Herbies has pledged to almost double this figure to 30% by 2019.

As part of this ambitious programme the firm has implemented women networks at various “key transitional stages”, including the levels of junior associate, senior associate and newly-made up partner.

From this week Herbies has gone one step further to bring in a female trainee network, which it is touting as “the first network of its kind in the City”. It has apparently proved an immediate hit with the firm’s approximately 70 London-based women trainees, with co-chairs Jessica Matthews, Maryam Oghanna and Elizabeth Reeves speaking of receiving “fantastic support and feedback from across the firm”.

Critics, however, point out that while Herbies’ partner gender stats aren’t great, it doesn’t have a problem at trainee level (a respectable 49% of its trainees are female). They suggest that it is among this rookie group that a women’s network is least required. But the firm’s global head of diversity and inclusion, David Shields, disagrees with this view, suggesting that anything that can encourage greater dialogue about the different challenges faced by male and female lawyers should be encouraged. He told Legal Cheek:

“Our experience is that lawyers, in particular women lawyers, start making decisions about their career paths at an earlier stage than is often assumed — for example, by consulting firms’ maternity leave policies at the training contract application stage. So we’re aiming to start building that partner pipeline from the trainee level by establishing a network that facilitates mentoring with partner role models.”

Which firm has the highest proportion of women associates and partners? Check out the Legal Cheek Top 60 Firms ‘Most’ List and accompanying firm profiles.