UJBL: Your Presidential year is dedicated to the empowerment and leadership of women in the legal profession. How would you describe the situation in the profession in general. And particularly in England and Wales?
Christina Blacklaws (CB): As the centenary of the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, this is a landmark year for women in the profession. It denotes a historic moment; 100 years since women won the right to practice for the very first time.
This is a time, of course, to reflect on the considerable progress that’s been made. However, we must also acknowledge that there is so much work left to do. We know that 60% of new entrants into the profession have been women, but women only represent 30.8% of partners in private practice.
That’s why over the past year, we have focused on uncovering the hidden barriers that hinder the progression of women in law. We’ve held over two hundred roundtables and conducted the largest ever international survey on this topic. Nearly 12,000 women and men have taken part.
As a result, we have been able to outline three primary obstacles to progression: unconscious bias, the gender pay gap and a lack of flexible working. If we are to enable more women to reach positions of senior leadership, we must be willing to get to grips with those issues as we strive towards building more inclusive and flexible workplace cultures.
UJBL: What are the current policy trends across UK law firms and globally?
CB: Law firms based in the UK and global law firms with substantial operations in the UK, play a central role in the UK’s successful service sector. English law and legal services emanating from the UK are a key export and, as a result, large law firms take an increasingly global view of the legal services market. That’s why the most successful firms are placing an emphasis on modernization, particularly the need for innovation in the provision of legal services. They are making maximum use of legal tech, an area where the UK leads the world. Keeping up the pace with these trends is amongst the primary challenges for UK firms and those operating in the UK.
We at the Law Society are devoting substantial efforts to promoting achievements in this field, to ensure that UK law firms continue to be leaders in a competitive global market.
UJBL: How would you comment on the situation that there is a substantial gap in compensation even in Magic Circle law firms?
CB: The Gender Pay Gap reporting requirement has been an effective policy as it has shone a light on this issue and, often for the first time, firms have been looking at their reward information through the lens of gender equality. The fact that many law firms have larger than average gender pay gaps is concerning, and something which I hope is getting real attention in those firms.
We have produced a Gender Pay Gap Toolkit which enables firms to identify and then address any pay gap issues. We are also encouraging firms to include their partners in their gender pay gap reporting and to report on their ethnicity pay gap as well.
UJBL: What can the Law Society of England and Wales do to increase the role of women? Can you give us some examples of your recent achievements and share your plans?
CB: Historically, the work culture in law firms has been set by men. Transforming those cultures has to be a prerequisite to unlocking more opportunities for women in the profession. By exposing the challenges, we hope to support firms in creating that change.
Firstly, there must be an acknowledgement and willingness to address unconscious bias. In our research this emerged as the biggest barrier to women’s career progression — 52% of respondents feeling it prevents women from reaching senior leadership positions, yet only 11% receive consistent unconscious bias training at work. I have spoken to many women who believe they have been held to different standards of behavior opposite male colleagues.
60% of respondents in the Law Society’s survey reported being aware of a gender pay gap in their organization, but only 16% saw visible steps being taken to address this. We want to empower women to be able to have “difficult” conversations about pay equality without simply being labelled “pushy”.
Finally, 91% of respondents in the Law Society’s survey saw flexible working as key to improving diversity in the legal profession, but only 52% work in organizations where flexible policies are consistently enforced. Firms must consider introducing flexible working patterns to show that it is the quality of work, rather than the number of hours spent in the office, that matters.
We are encouraging law firms to fall behind this vision of a more positive and inclusive environment. As a profession which strives to uphold justice, the legal sector must be at the forefront of the fight for equality in the workplace.
We are holding an international symposium on Thursday 20 — Friday 21 June 2019 in London. I hope that as many colleagues from Ukraine — men as well as women — will attend.