Women make up increasing proportions of the global legal profession, but their progress differs dramatically by culture and nation.
According to a 2013 study of 86 countries (representing 80 percent of the world’s population), women began to flow into the legal profession worldwide in the 2000s. Globally, India and China have the lowest representation of women in the law, while Latin America, the former Soviet Bloc countries, and Europe have the highest.
The study found 52 countries had greater than 30 percent representation among employed lawyers—a threshold generally thought to indicate significant societal change. Uruguay and Venezuela were quick starters, passing that mark by the early 1980s. By the mid- to late 2000s, women made up at least 50 percent of lawyers in Bulgaria, Latvia, Poland, and Romania—some of the highest representation in the world—while Norway, Denmark, Germany, and the United States were relative latecomers, crossing the 30 percent threshold at the same time. Meanwhile, the world’s two largest countries are also some of the slowest to integrate women: India stands at 5 percent representation for women in the legal profession, and China, 20 percent.
These numbers may not represent a wholesale “feminization” of the legal profession, but they are a clear indication the law is becoming more representative of its diverse constituents worldwide. Below, we look at three countries with unique patterns of diversity for women. Each faces its own challenges, but all show intriguing progress as well.
The 30 percent goal
The United Kingdom, like the United States, is grappling with increasing retention and promotion among women—but it’s ahead on those measures.
In the United Kingdom, women now make up 61 percent of graduating law classes; they’ve been more than half of graduates since 1992. Yet despite vocal support for diversity among top firms, just 17 percent of British law firm partners are women. The country also sees a significant earnings gap: women in private practice earn 30 percent less than men, while women working in corporate legal departments make 28 percent less.
Ursula Wynhoven, general counsel and chief of governance and social sustainability for the United Nations Global Compact, refers to the “intoxicating power of gradualism”— quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.—to explain the gap between graduation rates and representation at leadership levels. “I think for quite a while people thought, ‘Well, it will just sort itself out. We don’t have to keep our eye on the prize.’ But as someone once put it, you can fall behind while you’re patting yourself on the back.”
The issue is seeing increasing attention in Britain. The high-profile group Women in Law London, founded by five female solicitors, launched in the fall of 2014. Quickly amassing 1,600 members, it is intended to foster women’s leadership in the legal profession and serve as an education and networking group. The group writes:
The reality is that the profession is losing talented women and the trend is not reversing at a sufficient rate. … It is not just those women who choose to have a family that do not reach leadership roles and to reduce or excuse the problem to parenthood is simplistic and in fact reinforces gender bias. Firms and companies need to look at their own promotion processes to see whether they are valuing and investing in the women who may be promoted.
The country is also seeing intensified efforts to help women returning from childbirth. The Women Returners Network, founded by Katerina Gould (HBS ’90) and Julianne Miles, provides coaching and connects “returners”—women moving back to the workforce after a period of time away—with major employers such as Bloomberg and Credit Suisse. Gould and Miles both have MBAs and counseling degrees, and combine their skills to help women back onto the career track.
Despite vocal support for diversity among top firms, just 17 percent of British law firm partners are women.
Meanwhile, “magic circle” firm Allen & Overy has launched a returner program for its own women alumni. The program has received criticism for primarily tracking such women into its contract lawyer division, but the firm says the program is the first of its kind in Britain. Allen & Overy has committed to an effort it calls the 20:20 initiative to increase women partners (who currently stand at 17 percent) to 20 percent by 2020. Linklaters, another magic circle firm, has committed to making women 30 percent of all partner promotions by 2018, as well as to increasing the representation of women on its board to that number by the same year (doubling its current female board representation, at 15 percent).
Broader societal changes are occurring as well. In April 2015, a new shared parental leave law took effect that allows mothers and fathers to take up to 50 weeks of parental leave (37 weeks paid), which they can split between them. Britain already had generous parental leave laws in place allowing each parent up to 18 weeks off before a child’s fifth birthday, as well as 52 weeks of maternity leave and two weeks of paid paternity leave following a birth or adoption.
The new law expands paternity leave dramatically and is expected to allow increased paternal involvement and sharing of caregiving responsibilities, as well as greater flexibility and support for women returning to work.
India represents a fascinating anomaly, says Swethaa Ballakrishnen, a Center on the Legal Profession research fellow. While the country’s overall representation for women is among the lowest in the world, in a certain very elite sector of the bar, women are at parity in representation, pay, and leadership. Ballakrishnen interviewed dozens of Indian lawyers as part of the Center’s flagship research project on Globalization, Lawyers and Emerging Economies, the full findings of which will be offered in a forthcoming book, The Indian Legal Profession in the Age of Globalization (2016).
“India has a problem with larger representation of women in the legal profession, but in very elite law firms and in law firms that do transactional work,” Ballakrishnen says, “women do much better than they do anywhere else. Not only do they enter at the same rate as men, they get professional rewards as they move ahead in the firm at the same rate as their male counterparts, and they earn the same amount and become partners at the same rate.”
When India liberalized its economy in 1991, brand-new law firms formed to serve the newly opened market’s need for international corporate and transactional law. Previously, India’s lawyers were primarily solo practitioners focused on family and other domestic law. The new firms—including AZB & Partners, founded and run by Zia Mody (HLS ’79), a woman widely regarded as one of the country’s most powerful lawyers—created an oasis of meritocracy based on Western values in an otherwise very traditional culture. “For the first time in a country that’s otherwise known for deep inegalitarianism and very, very strict gender hierarchies, there’s this space where gender doesn’t seem to matter in some sense,” Ballakrishnen says. “It’s this imported thing that if you work really hard and you do really well, you’re going to move ahead. That sort of premise doesn’t really exist in very many spaces.”
The new law firms were looking to distinguish themselves from India’s traditionally kinship-based profession, Ballakrishnen says, “and the way to set themselves apart from that model was to set up this very merit-based, egalitarian, post-liberal model that mimicked what they thought the law firms in the West looked like. And one of these accidental surprises is that they managed to not care about gender as much as they cared about other qualities.” Dedication and work ethic, English-language ability, and graduation from one of the new law schools that arose to train attorneys in international law were more important. “So gender was not what got primed, because it got adopted at a time when the gender revolution was already sort of won in the countries they were mimicking.”
“Part of the advantage in new countries that have adopted firm models is they have no preexisting framework of what a law firm lawyer should look like,” Ballakrishnen points out. “There’s no assumption that a law firm partner ought to look and act and speak and do things a certain way, because law firms didn’t exist before the late ’90’s.”
“For the first time in a country that’s otherwise known for deep inegalitarianism and very, very strict gender hierarchies,” the Center on the Legal Profession’s Ballakrishnen says, “There’s space where gender doesn’t seem to matter.”
Given the warm welcome, women tend to stay at these firms, Ballakrishnen has found. In addition, she notes, the business environment is not hostile to the family or child care. “People taking off for home responsibilities is not met with the same sort of dissidence that it is here.”
Her work highlights a little-noticed aspect of globalization. “We always think of stuff that happens in the East as a very strong, bad photocopy of stuff that happens here. That’s how we think of globalization,” she says. “We think, ‘Oh, it gets copied, but it doesn’t get copied quite as well.’ But for countries that aren’t already set in their systems, the future seems a little bit more bright, because they have the advantage of being able to renegotiate existing hierarchies in new ways, and that’s exciting. I think that’s something to watch out for. The places where we think we’re not seeing progress are likely to be places where progress actually happens.”
The Norwegian paradox
For decades, Norway has led the world in social policies that promote gender equity. Yet law firms in the country still struggle with representation for women at the highest levels.
Women now make up 64 percent of graduating law school classes and have made up over 60 percent for more than a decade. “It is an interesting case because we have reached several of the most important goals with respect to gender equality,” Nils H. Thommessen, managing partner of Wiersholm, one of Norway’s highest-ranked firms, tells The Practice in an interview. “However, when it comes to law firms, it doesn’t really seem to be that way.”
Of the 150 lawyers at his firm, Thommessen volunteers, 43 are partners, and just four of those are women. That is similar to other firms in Scandinavia. The result is what one researcher calls a “Norwegian paradox”—though the country is one of the world’s highest-ranked in gender equity, women hold few leadership positions in law or business.
Wiersholm promoted one woman to partnership in January, Thommessen says. “I’m sure that there will be more. We can see already there is partner material in several of the women we have in our firm today. In five years or 10 years’ time, it will look different. It’s probably just a normal lag.”
“You can build competence slowly, or you can build it quickly,” Wiersholm’s Thommessen says. “You can choose to build it slowly because you have children or because you want to do a lot of sailing. That’s fine with us.”
On the other hand, he notes, representation of women among corporate general counsel is much higher. “Companies like that are very attractive to female professionals in law firms who don’t feel law firms can offer them the same kind of life balance that the in-house departments can.”
Fifteen years ago, Wiersholm undertook an effort to recruit women. The firm found women representatives did a better job of attracting other women, and that emphasizing its family-friendly culture helped, Thommessen says. At the time, women law graduates “were scared of firms like ours, that it would take their whole life away from them.”
Attitudes have shifted somewhat, he says. “Now this has changed a little, because they don’t seem afraid at all, and also there’s much more equality with respect to who is back at home with the children and who is picking up children and who is bringing children to kindergarten.” Following passage of a 1993 parental leave law, men taking paternity leave in the country jumped from just 3 percent to 90 percent. “What you see in Norway is that there is difference in who takes the leave of absence when they have the newborn. That gender difference is becoming less and less.”
Wiersholm’s approach to the country’s compulsory parental leave law is flexible enough to encompass not just parenting, but any reason for taking leave or reducing hours. The firm evaluates associates based on competency rather than seniority. “You can build competence slowly, or you can build it quickly,” Thommessen says. “You can choose to build it slowly, for example, because you have children or because you want to do a lot of sailing, or you want to do a lot of skiing, or you want to prioritize your wife or friends. That’s fine with us, within some limits, obviously.”
Such flexibility assumes associates will move a bit more slowly up the ladder. “If you make that choice—which is seriously, 100 percent seriously, fine with us—then you will also have to accept that you may not get the promotions as quickly as those who focus more on building competence.”
Quotas on the rise
In 2010, the British government briefly considered applying quotas to rectify low numbers of women on corporate boards. It ultimately rejected the option.
But threat of government intervention sparked action by Helena Morrissey, the CEO of Newton Investment Management. In 2010, she launched the 30 Percent Club as a business-led, voluntary effort with the goal of achieving 30 percent representation on the boards of the United Kingdom’s top 100 FTSE-traded companies. The organization’s name reflects the concept that representation of any minority group must reach 30 percent before it becomes, in Morrissey’s words, “self-perpetuating”—when its members stop being seen as representatives of a particular group, but as individuals.
In 2010, women made up 13 percent of FTSE boards in Britain. The effort has seen considerable progress: five years later, 125 companies have signed on, and women’s representation on corporate boards among the FTSE top 100 has jumped to 24 percent.
“Where is your commitment to change?” asks Berwin Leighton Paisner’s Bigby. “A lot of the big international firms have stepped up to the plate, and they certainly seem to be trying to walk the talk.”
The campaign has brought greater attention to the issue in the law as well. The 30 Percent Club has worked with 17 law and professional services firms in the United Kingdom to institute a plan for increased retention and representation of women. Nicole Bigby is partner and general counsel at London’s Berwin Leighton Paisner, a “silver circle” firm that recently appointed its first female managing partner. Bigby comments: “The 30 percent objective for women on corporate boards raised the issue to a level of visibility, and in some ways threw down the challenge for other professional advisors or other firms sitting outside the pure corporate theater: this is our expectation we’re going to set for ourselves. You come from one of the most conservative sectors. Where is your commitment to change? I think a lot of the big international firms have stepped up to the plate with that, and they certainly seem to be trying to walk the talk.”
Still, quotas are increasingly common. In 1993, India passed a bill requiring a third of all local government seats be held by women, though a broader bill requiring the same for state and national governments has been stalled in Parliament since. Those in favor of quotas argue there’s no other way to induce change, given that voluntary representation of women has risen so slightly over the past several decades. They say current rates of change are too slow. A 2010 UK government report estimated that at the current pace, it would take 70 years to reach gender equity in business boardrooms there.
Those against quotas say they may actually be counterproductive. “I find quotas somewhat condescending. I wouldn’t want to be part of a board because I’m filling a quota,” the 30 Percent Club’s Morrissey has said. One study of Norway’s 40 percent quota for women on corporate boards, which took effect in 2006, found the measure led to younger, less experienced boards and deterioration in operating performance. Yet while quotas are initially controversial, they seem to achieve increasing acceptance over time. Another study found no negative effect in Norway, and that women appointed to boards there were actually better educated than men.
Debates aside, the majority of European countries have now legislated business quotas, including France, Spain, and Italy. In January of this year, Germany instituted a 30 percent quota for its largest companies; thousands of smaller companies will be required to come up with plans to increase representation by September. Though quotas are unlikely to be politically popular in the United States, voluntary efforts, as in Britain, may have more effect. A U.S.-based branch of the 30 Percent Club, launched in New York City in April, saw dozens of CEO supporters rapidly signing on.
“For professions more generally, I think we’re at a time where we’re forced to reassess where we stand as institutions, and what it means for our constituents,” says Ballakrishnen. “There’s a lot of money being pushed into diversity and rearrangement efforts, and I think there’s bona fide institutional commitment to making things better for all participants. Gender is just one part of this spectrum. There are other kinds of diversity that we’re trying to be inclusive in and committing to really strive for. I think the next 10 years are going to be a time of very rapid reassessment of existing principles of how firms work. We need to step back, and we’re at that space in the process where stepping back is not just a luxury, it’s a necessity to move forward.”