It Starts at the Top

by | Mar 22, 2017

Letter from London

By Melinda Wallman and Lynnsey McCall

Slowly but surely women are making progress in law firms. In the UK, the proportion of partners who are women has increased from 15 percent in 1995 to 29 percent in 2015. Law firms are starting to understand what leaders can do to advance the careers of women in their firms. The key to success is basic management theory: transparency and accountability—which is exactly what underpins WILEF’s Gold Standard Certification.


Melinda Wallman

During our recent WILEF panel in London, we discussed with four leading female lawyers what works in law firms to allow for more female attorneys to progress and succeed in their organisations. What we learned: It starts at the top. Here are four takeaways:

1. Have the infrastructure in place and be transparent about how it is maintained and achieved.

Your firm needs to have the infrastructure to give confidence to women who are coming up through the firm. According to Tamara Box, head of structured finance and Europe and Middle East managing partner of Reed Smith, “To ensure more women get on the Reed Smith board, we determined that the chair could reserve three appointments for gender balance.” Whilst originally these positions were used for female appointments, they have been used more recently to appoint men because the gender balance has shifted strongly. When women see a multitude of female partners within the firm and a high percentage of females sitting on the management committee and board, they can be confident that there are opportunities for them to grow and advance.

MoFo Photo

Lynnsey McCall

Some firms establish a work allocation scheme, where work is spread in a mechanistic way throughout the department, giving equal opportunities to any kind of lawyer. Others have seen success in setting targets and making practice heads take ownership of how those targets will be met on their team. The path to partnership needs to be transparent. “At CMS, there is a real people focus, and they need to ensure that those who are promoted share the values of partnership. They look at who has the appetite to grow the business, to put the firm first and to contribute to thought leadership,” explained Penelope Warne, senior partner and chairman of the UK board and head of energy at CMS Cameron McKenna.

2. Offer voluntary training to boost morale as opposed to forcing mandatory inclusion training.

Singling out women or any minority group and offering training specifically to them has been proven to produce a negative reaction. “In my experience, unconscious bias training produces a defensive reaction,” said Kiran Sharma, partner in the private equity transactions group at Ropes & Gray. “There was also a challenge of taking it with you when you leave the room.” More success comes from offering great training for men and women that focuses on business development and managing client relationships, for example. When a lawyer can grow from the training they are completing, they will likely get more out of it than a training that pushes an issue or calls for the group to take specific action that may be contrary to their beliefs.

This is consistent with thousands of studies that have been carried out over the last 60 years, which show that while people are easily taught to respond correctly to a questionnaire about bias, they soon forget the right answers. The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash.

3. Create opportunities to make connections.

Law firm lawyers should strive to find connections that are powerful and personal, according to Tamara Box. They have the power to personally connect with people who can give them business. The firm should help provide these options to its lawyers through affinity groups, diverse teams and cross-organisational mentoring.

4. Be flexible about working arrangements and path to partnership.

A single track to partnership is long gone. Today’s flexible working options make it easier for female lawyers to have children and pursue a family without having to forego their partnership ambitions. “If you want to be a partner, you are an owner in the business,” explained Lisa Mayhew, managing partner of BLP. “The flexibility is two way. If you are working flexibly, you are not necessarily going to have the same path to partnership as your colleague who has worked full-time and not had any career breaks.” Technology allows us to work flexibly, which requires good collaboration and discipline to do it right.

Melinda Wallman is Partner and Head of Partner Practice Group EMEA, Major, Lindsey & Africa; and Co-Vice Chair of WILEF International. Linnsey McCall is Head of Legal Talent and Recruitment – Europe at Morrison & Foerster (UK) LLP.