Change is now

It’s fair to say that legal directories have come in for more than their fair share of flack over the years, particularly when it comes to speed of change. But if proof were needed that The Legal 500 is more than capable of setting the pace, then the latest UK gender diversity stats neatly provide it.

When I joined The Legal 500 three years ago, only 5% of leading individuals ranked for premium M&A in London were women. Today, that figure stands at more than 31%. And, crucially, this progress has been replicated across the wider guide, both in London and the rest of the UK.

Looking at all of our ranked individuals – from the senior figureheads in our Hall of Fame down to the Rising Star associates – women now make up almost 40% of the roughly 11,000 lawyers recognised by us as leaders in their field.

In London, the percentage of women ranked climbed year-on-year across almost 100 of our 126 practice areas, with women now making up 37% of all ranked lawyers in the capital – up from 34% last year.

This growth rate is particularly impressive given the London guide includes some 600 more individuals this year than last.

And, while it remains true that the proportion of women ranked is higher at the junior end than the senior, reflecting the fact that many women continue to drop off the partnership track, we’ve made progress with diversity at all levels in the rankings this year.

Thirty one percent of our Leading Individuals are female, and so are almost a quarter of the most senior lawyers recognised in our Hall of Fame. Here, this rise has been aided by our decision to remove any time-based barrier to entry, on the grounds that this was holding back those lawyers who only gained recognition by The Legal 500 later in their careers, which tended to apply to many women and minority lawyers.

“We know what a difference role models make and seeing someone like you achieve recognition is really powerful.”
Melissa Fogarty, Clifford Chance

To head off the inevitable questions – these increases are not token gestures made simply to make our data look better. They reflect a very conscious effort on the part of our UK research team to identity the most deserving female talent in London and beyond.

Every lawyer in our ranking (regardless of race, gender or any other measure) is there on merit alone – they have demonstrated lead roles on market-defining deals and received the praise of clients and peers alike. All we have done is addressed the unconscious bias that was previously holding them back – questioning firms and partners more intensely to reveal the most talented women in their midst in order to secure them the recognition they deserve.

It will not be possible to continue this rate of growth year after year. What I would hope will happen though, is that the balance of our rankings will shift over time, as Rising Stars climb to Next Generation Partner, Leading Individual and beyond, buoyed by the extra visibility they gain in the market as a result of their ranking.

The role of directories will always be limited by what is happening in the profession itself – we have to reflect what is happening in firms – but our part in providing visible role models to future generations cannot be underestimated.

As Clifford Chance London corporate co-head Melissa Fogarty comments: ‘Diversity exists in our profession, but it hasn’t always been reflected. We know what a difference role models make and seeing someone like you achieve recognition is really powerful. We need to continue to focus on reflecting the breadth of people who are successful in the legal profession. Dealmakers like Karen Davies at Ashurst and Claire Wills at Freshfields have been prominent role models for me, but there are others too, and people need to see them.’

A key part of our ongoing efforts will be to try to edge up the numbers in some core City transactional practices, such as private equity and acquisition finance, that continue to lag slightly behind that crucial 30% marker.

Levelling up

Of course, London accounts for only half of all of the individuals ranked in The Legal 500, and it is crucial for us to ensure that we are measuring gender diversity across the entire guide.

This year, for the first time, we have measured gender diversity in all of our rankings outside London. As this is the first year we have done this, we don’t yet have comparative year-on-year data, but the efforts our researchers have gone to, in conjunction with help from the market, mean the gender mix is slightly more evenly balanced outside London.

Some 44% of the 5,500 lawyers included in our 441 regional UK rankings are female; ranging from roughly a quarter of those in the Hall of Fame, up to around 60% of our Rising Stars. By region, the South East comes out top, with women making up more than half (52%) of all ranked lawyers, just ahead of the North, East Anglia and the South West, all of which are around 50% female.

So far, so good.

But while I am proud of the progress we’ve made in terms of gender diversity, I’m under no illusions about the far bigger challenge we still need to overcome. Women in law remains an important issue that still requires continued attention, but it’s the easiest part of the diversity puzzle to solve.

Other aspects of diversity – both visible and invisible – are far more difficult to grapple with, not least because of the privacy issues around obtaining accurate data. Representation of ethnic minority lawyers remains the elephant in the room, both within the firms themselves and within our rankings.

Roughly 14% of the UK population come from a minority ethnic background – a similar percentage to those in the legal profession, according to Law Society data. An estimate of representation in the UK solicitors guide suggests our numbers lag behind this, at less than 10%. It’s something that we have to improve.

But we really do need your help in order to do this.

Our efforts to improve representation in The Legal 500 are limited not only by the issues around how we measure the relevant data accurately but also by the institutional challenges facing lawyers of colour.

As Tim Regis, real estate partner and multiculturalism champion at Ashurst, acknowledges: ‘I’d say it’s not for directories to change their rankings but for law firms to create a wider, diverse talent base so that you can reflect reality. That means directories looking at which individuals firms are putting forward, and firms looking at how they recruit, retain and promote diverse talent. Everyone has talked the talk but now it’s about the practical action that happens next.’

One practical first step that we’ll be taking is challenging firms that don’t put forward any diverse lawyers for consideration within our individual rankings.

We want – and need – to play our part in helping to improve representation and we can only do it by working with you. So please, do get in touch to share your ideas about how we can work together. It’s vital that we are showcasing role models for all – instilling the belief that recognition isn’t dependent on race, colour or creed.