Equal Partners: Herbert Smith Freehills Sets Female Partnership Target

May 10, 2019

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3 min read

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What's going on here?

Silver circle law firm Herbert Smith Freehills sets a bold 35% global female partnership target for May 2023.

What does this mean?

Back in 2014, Herbert Smith Freehills became one of the first international law firms to introduce targets to redress the gender imbalance within their global partnership.

In the most recent partnership promotion in April 2019, 8 of the 22 lawyers promoted to partner were female. This reflects a 36% female partner representation. But when considering the global picture, only 124 of the firm’s 478 partners are female — a total of 26%.

Some have described this shortfall as ‘narrow’, but Aspirant Analytics (an HR analyst company) indicated in October 2018 that Herbert Smith Freehills would need to promote 11 additional female partners in order to reach a 30% target by 2020. This, combined with its failure to reach historical targets, may explain why Herbert Smith Freehills’ most recent target has been described as “bold”.

Despite this, Herbert Smith Freehills remain positive about its ambitious targets, commenting that the level of female partnership as it stands currently reflects a 53% increase in the number of female partners since the targets were launched five years ago. This demonstrates the firm’s commitment to improving gender equality.

Why should law firms care?

In recent years, law firms have become increasingly committed to addressing the issue of gender diversity, especially at partnership level. A report commissioned by McKinsey in 2017 found that the gender gap in law firms is much wider than in other industries. This is surprising, given that the majority of new trainees joining city law firms each year are female, and that in 2018, the number of female qualified lawyers was higher than the number of male qualifiers for the first time.

Whilst a large proportion of city and international law firms alike have introduced gender targets to encourage and aspire significant change in gender representation, others have sought to introduce policies that support a healthy work life balance. These include promoting extended maternity leave, part-time working and on-site childcare services, amongst others. It is hoped this will mitigate the high-attrition rate of female lawyers (the rate at which staff leave their role) at senior levels. Firms also recognise that embracing diversity may enhance their strategic development and appeal to their client base.

There has, however, been debate surrounding whether or not targets are the real answer. Dana Denis-Smith (founder of The First 100 Years Project, an organisation which has been charting the history of women in the law) has argued for the imposition of quotas on the number of women at partner level. She suggest that targets and “talk” about diversity has failed to create any significant change.

This may have some truth. With a number of silver circle firms failing to meet their targets in 2019, and other magic circle firms failing to put a deadline on when they will aim to reach their female partnership target. Aspirant Analytics concluded that the only way the legal industry could achieve a 30/70 split of women to men in partnership positions by 2020 would require the total number of partner promotions to double, a scenario that is wholly unrealistic.

It is obvious that the targets reflect a clear commitment to moving towards gender equality within law firms and progress has undoubtedly been made. Yet a question remains about whether targets alone can drive the necessary change in gender equality within the legal industry as the issue continues to remain at the forefront of the profession.

Report written by Becky B

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