For once, clients can take a lead because law firms will never crack the gender issue

It took some time for the #MeToo movement to reach the legal profession but it is here now, heralding an increasingly intense debate about the treatment of women in the profession.

While the initial run of post-Weinstein allegations triggered a discussion about the controversial use of non-disclosure agreements in masking predatory behaviour – and the role of law firms including Allen & Overy in crafting them – in the main, the profession kept its head down. This is despite for years being clear that private practice not only had a dire record on retaining women and the belief that the status accorded partners encourages bad behaviour.

All that is now bursting into the open, with 2018 already bringing news that a Dentons partner has left the firm after an investigation into sexual harassment and senior lawyers being dragged into the Presidents Club row. But most sensitively, Baker McKenzie has been derailed by claims that it poorly handled allegations of sexual assault by a prominent partner and then compounded mistakes in its subsequent handling and disclosures.

Still on the issue of gender, Legal Business’s first cover feature of the year looked at why so few women are breaking into senior roles in the core transactional areas that drive top law firms. And gender pay disclosures now required of large law firms have unsurprisingly demonstrated that male lawyers are earning a lot more than women. Let us not forget that the profession – despite a huge intake of women at the junior ranks – is still struggling to get female partnership ratios above 20% at many leading City firms.

A more upbeat response would be that part of the issue is due to women proactively opting out of full-time private practice because they now have better choices. Indeed, the in-house profession has been a huge beneficiary of the exodus of talented female lawyers looking for family-friendly environments, or at least a measure of autonomy.

And while this is most evident at the mid-level, it extends to the upper echelons of the profession. Our last GC Powerlist focusing on senior GCs included 42 women out of 100 with no particular effort in our research to do anything but select the most influential legal heads in the UK. That is the kind of gender balance you could never credibly cite in private practice.

So we stand in 2018 with clear evidence that law firms are institutionally incapable of change. It is going to require the increasingly female-driven ranks of clients to break the impasse.

Now CLIENTS DRIVING CHANGE is a platitude far too blithely wheeled out in law, in many cases where in-house teams are ill-equipped and culturally disinclined to do more than talk on the conference circuit. And I have heard plenty of credible reports from law firms of clients paying lip service to flexible working and gender diversity and the next moment stamping their feet the second they do not get pointlessly immediate attention. Hopefully that day is now passing and GCs and their teams should, can and will start to demand far more balanced teams from their advisers. Law firms – which remain singularly good at hustling when clients insist on something rather than just pontificating – will never reform themselves. But the UK legal elite would be refashioned within a decade if plcs demanded credible female representation from their teams. That day has surely come.