Why don’t enough women get to the top in law?


Phil Goodstone recalls his early years as a partner with a law firm.  At the time three of the most talented associates in the team were female. Then, within a year, each of them left the firm. “You could rationalise each departure,” he says. “But when you spent time with each of the associates individually it became abundantly clear that each had looked up and did not aspire to the life partners at the firm had. I will never forget that. They didn’t want to be like me.”

Later in his career he recalls how he noticed that potential male partners would regularly seek him out to discuss promotion whereas females almost never did. “There was a huge difference in approach. The men never missed an opportunity to make their case for promotion and in fact never questioned their ability to perform if promoted. Women in the team were far more reticent and wanted to be far more sure that they could do the job before raising the prospect of promotion. There was no real difference in ability or ambition, but the difference in behaviours could have given a very different impression, particularly in relation to ambition, and could have meant that some very good female candidates were overlooked,” he says.

Phil is now EY’s UK and Ireland head of law and is keen to address the issues that discourage many talented women lawyers from making it to the top of their profession. He spoke at a recent event on gender and the legal profession held by My Family Care and Fides at Simmons & Simmons.

He believes it is about making diversity and inclusion part of the core business strategy rather than just an initiative. That doesn’t mean he thinks initiatives are not important, but he says they emanate from the core strategy. For diversity and inclusion to form part of the core strategy, senior leadership needs to actively lead and sponsor it, he adds.

No material improvement

Phil joined EY two and a half years ago to set up their UK legal business, having spent the previous 25 years working in law firms and specialising in mergers and acquisitions. He recalls when he began his career in 1990 that the trainee intake at his firm was 17 women and just five men, which was unusual at the time. He doesn’t know what happened to his trainee intake, but doesn’t believe that there has been material improvement in relation to diversity in certain areas of the law over the course of his career.

Gender balance in certain areas of practice such as mergers and acquisitions is not good at senior level. If I look at the situation today I am not sure there has been much progress in terms of who gets promoted to partnership in these areas. Again it is easy to rationalise this, but I do worry about how few role models there are for women coming through the profession,” he says.

Phil talks about his 11-year-old daughter who has told him that she might like to be a lawyer like her mum and dad. He asks: “Do I tell her the truth about the additional challenges women face if they choose to focus on certain areas of the law or do I hope things will improve and let her find her own way?” He mentions a friend who works as a consultant in the NHS whose daughter is training to be a doctor. He asked him what the gender balance was for consultants. His friend said that amongst his peer group there had been little or no difference in opportunities for women. “It was a striking moment for me,” says Phil.  It made him think about what it might be about certain areas of law that was holding women back from reaching the very top. People always say that it is because of the demanding nature of the job, he says, but working as a consultant in the NHS is no less demanding. “It feels that there are a lot of areas for improvement in law,” he says.

As he was building his team when he joined EY he focused on two themes, technology and innovation and diversity and inclusion. “One of my core messages is that we are committed to diversity and inclusion and that we want to be a place where people can prosper and be promoted irrespective of gender, race, background etc,” he says.

He says diversity targets and policies are fine, but that they do not alone bring cultural change. “It’s not that targets are bad, but hitting targets is not a panacea. We need to look both deeper into and beyond the statistics to understand whether a diverse and inclusive culture has really been achieved,” he says.

He is clear how important senior leadership is for driving diversity and inclusion. “It has to be driven by leadership and embedded through all processes and systems,” he says, adding that it can’t just be made the responsibility or tasked to the most junior, often female partner.

Improving the number of women at senior levels

Phil’s own team does not yet have enough women in senior roles, but he says that EY are determined this should change. He acknowledges that part of the reason for this is that EY’s UK legal business is still new and also that the number of female candidates at a senior level has been limited. “We are fishing in a small pool,” he says “and therefore the journey will take us longer than I would have liked, but that just means we will need to work even harder to inspire our team to become partners and be clear that we are committed to building a diverse team at all levels that acts in an inclusive way.”

One way of increasing the number of women at senior levels is ensuring that all recruitment statistics are carefully monitored and consultants are asked to explain a lack of female candidates put forward for interview. “We would typically reject an all-male candidate shortlist. All of our statistics are looked at with a diversity and inclusion lens,” he states.

Another important factor is flexible working, training managers in making flexible working work, getting them to model it themselves and opening up conversations about it. His team has a desk ratio of one desk to 1.25 staff to show that it doesn’t expect everyone in the office every day. The company also has a mandatory two full days of training for partners in unconscious bias. But he recognises that no single initiative will work on its own. “There is no silver bullet for diversity and inclusion. What we need to do is ensure the playing field allows those who are the most talented to rise to the top,” he says.

Asked why it seems women who work as in-house lawyers are more likely to progress than those in private practice, he says it may be a perception that in-house lawyers have more regular hours and that it is “a more tried and tested path” – ie that because women have risen the career ranks in in-house firms there are more role models which encourages more women.

He says the business case is clear that diverse teams, and not just gender diverse teams, that behave inclusively increase overall performance. That means creating an environment which attracts a diverse range of talent and encourages all to make an active contribution. He states: “Senior leadership can create lots of positive ripples in relation to D&I. The tone has to be set from the top.”

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