Why the challenge to create more female partners starts at trainee level

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By The Careers Team on

The co-founder of the City’s first women’s network for trainee lawyers believes millennials hold the key to boosting gender diversity in the senior ranks of the legal profession


With City law firms recruiting students two years in advance, and training contracts themselves taking a further two years, wannabe solicitors are used to planning ahead.

The approximately 60% of trainees who are female are arguably even more inclined to reflect on the future, with Stanford University research finding that women were more likely than men to think and worry about how their career paths might align with parenthood.

As Yahoo CEO Sheryl Sandberg has emphasised, it’s all too easy when confronted with such a challenge to subconsciously “lean back” from taking on responsibilities rather than “leaning in” towards positions that will lead to promotions.

Yet gender diversity is still widely seen as an issue to be tackled in the intermediate and senior ranks of law firms — rather than at junior level.

Jessica Matthews (pictured above, left), a newly qualified solicitor at Herbert Smith Freehills, is seeking to change this. Last year she co-founded Herbert Smith Freehills’ Women Trainee Lawyer Network (WTLN) — the first City law firm initiative targeting those at the start of their careers. Matthews, who was guided by Sandberg’s philosophy in launching the group, tells Legal Cheek Careers:

The process of becoming a lawyer takes a long time, so it becomes natural to plan ahead. Certainly I know that a lot of my friends think long and hard when formulating their career plans. For me personally much of this is planning to have a family. Although I don’t plan to have children imminently, I would like to in the future, and firms’ gender diversity cultures and maternity leave policies were significant factors in where I applied for a training contract. At the same time, I’m ambitious professionally. While it’s not always down to parenting plans, I think women often plan much further into the future, and sometimes this can hold them back.

When Matthews arrived from law school at HSF in 2014, she was impressed with its Women Lawyers’ Network, but found it to be more geared to senior associates considering partnership applications. There was a gap for a group for trainees, she and WTLN co-chairs Maryam Oghanna and Elizabeth Reeves (pictured above, middle and right) believed, which could in turn feed in to the senior network.

What’s more, Matthews noticed that “female trainees seemed less confident about joining the firm’s broad array of groups and societies than the men”. With such networks a great way to build career-furthering ties with senior members of the firm, something needed to be done.

Discussions with HSF’s diversity group followed, before two partners, Ian Cox, the firm’s regional managing partner, and Paula Hodges QC, came on board as formal backers of the new network — which launched last January.

Since then WTLN has hosted an event about the impact of the ‘Confidence Gap’ on female trainees and a career transitions panel session, plus done social media Q&As with students via the @HSFGraduatesUK Twitter account. Later this month it is holding a panel discussion about millennials in the workplace that is aimed at both male and female trainees and which will consider work-life balance, the changing roles of lawyers and wellbeing in a modern workplace.

The news that only a tiny proportion of men have opted to take shared parental leave since it was introduced last year will be among the topics for discussion within the network, alongside the related issue of flexible working for all, with or without children. Matthews feels strongly that such matters need to be discussed by both women and men together if meaningful change is to take place. And she believes that large organisations like corporate law firms have a role to play in setting the agenda. She comments:

Areas like parental leave and flexible working affect men and women equally and we are really pleased to be able to bring people at the firm together to further a dialogue about these issues.

At other times, the WTLN has been useful as a vehicle for facilitating more informal conversations about gender issues. Matthews says that the Charlotte Proudman LinkedIn saga — which saw a junior female barrister cause a media storm after tweeting a screenshot of a senior male solicitor’s sexist LinkedIn message — generated lots of internal debate, with members of the network expressing contrasting opinions on the matter. She adds:

Considering a diverse range of opinions on issues like this, made in private, is helpful for trainees as they go forward in their careers.

With Matthews now no longer a trainee — the baton of running WTLN passed last month to the next generation of HSF rookies — her focus has shifted to making a gradual ascent towards what she hopes will be a senior role at the firm. That journey will be no doubt be facilitated by role models like Hodges, who leads HSF’s global arbitration practice, and graduate recruitment partner Veronica Roberts, both of whom Matthews and her fellow female qualifying trainees have already got to know through WTLN.

However, the fact remains that just 20% of HSF’s partners are women — not bad for a City law firm, but still not good enough. In a high profile move reported widely across the legal national press, the firm set itself two targets a couple of years ago: 25% women partners by May 2017 and 30% by May 2019. With female partner numbers up by four percentage points since 2014, the firm could just about pull it off — but it will be a close run thing.

Matthews, who was drawn to apply to HSF partly because of the lead it was taking on gender diversity matters, is optimistic:

Concerted efforts are now being made to develop people and it takes time to see those changes coming through,” she says, “but we’ve come a long way and the figures are rising, and that’s exciting.

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