Being a law firm partner, a QC or even a rookie barrister is largely a man’s game
The legal profession is increasingly being accused of structural sexism for the way it favours men in senior roles — and research by Legal Cheek demonstrates just that.
Women wishing to pursue a career in law may be shocked to hear that females are underrepresented as junior barristers, partners and QCs.
Women do, however, flourish in more junior legal roles. Legal Cheek‘s 2016 Firm Most List — released this month — shows that women dominate associate positions in law firms. 42 out of 60 of the firms recruit more women than men at this level.
Of the 18 remaining firms, women make up at least 40% of the junior workforce in all but one of the firms that disclosed their data to us. Irwin Mitchell tops the list, boasting 74% women associates.
And while a preference for female employees can be drawn from these figures, this pattern is not reflected in Legal Cheek’s 2016 Chambers Most List. The bar is a particularly male-dominated institution — even at junior level. Of the 50 sets featured, not a single chambers contains more female juniors than male juniors, with a mere five chambers surpassing the 40% mark. Disappointingly, at 14 out of 50 chambers women make up less than a quarter of junior barristers.
The statistics become increasingly polarised when senior positions are examined. A far cry from the pro-female slant evidenced in junior positions in law firms, the percentage of females taking on partner roles in law firms is dismally low.
In 48 out of our 60 law firms, the percentage of partnership positions filled by women is less than 25%. Withers tops the list as the firm employing the highest percentage of female partners at 45%, meaning that not a single firm has a female majority. Cleary Gottlieb sits right at the bottom of the list, with a figure of a mere 5%.
Turning to examine the senior bar, it is clear that being a QC is largely — and in a high number of instances, exclusively — a man’s game. Only one of the 50 chambers, St John’s, has more female QCs than it does men. All the others, with the exception of Stone Chambers, fall short of this 50% mark. A total of 42 out of 50 chambers do not surpass a quarter, 26 out of 50 do not surpass a tenth, and nine out of 50 chambers do not have a single female QC.
These figures will no doubt spark an angry reaction, yet it remains unclear why women are so heavily underrepresented in law firms and chambers. Calls for quotas from the likes of Charlotte Proudman suggest that the legal profession is institutionally sexist, and that women need to be given priority to redress what is clearly a gender imbalance.
But perhaps trends in gender diversity figures are too readily attributed to the metaphorical “glass ceiling”. More and more women are being offered training contracts, yet are not reaching senior positions, so maybe it is simply the case that women do not pursue senior positions as fiercely as men and steer instead towards care-giving roles. Of course, childbirth plays a major part in this, and it’s clear that the structure of legal careers pose a greater challenge to women.
One thing that has been lacking of late in law’s gender diversity debate is input from female law students. This group is often assumed to have the same long term ambitions — i.e. become partners — as their male counterparts. But spend some time on university campuses and it becomes clear this is not always the case. Hopefully this next generation will be consulted as the legal profession grapples with what has become an increasingly thorny issue.