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Less Talk, More Action on Women Progressing in Law, Says Top City Lawyer

Little appetite in the legal sector for quotas as evidence shows women still denied top roles

A greater focus on talent retention and promotion is needed if anything is going to be done about the long-term problem of women not reaching the senior ranks of the legal profession in England & Wales, says Kathleen Harris, Managing Partner at Arnold & Porter (London).

Harris’ warning comes after International Bar Association (IBA) research showed that although 51 per cent of lawyers in England & Wales are women, just 32 per cent hold senior roles.

Harris said that the time for talking about the issue was over and that action was needed.

Harris said: “I, along with a handful of other women in the profession, remain in the minority of those in leadership roles.

“There’s been a lot of talk for a long time about how women in the legal sector should be able to progress to the senior ranks, but we are still seeing the same old pattern of many women joining the profession, but far fewer reaching seniority.

“There has been a change in the culture in law firms post the pandemic, not just amongst those of us who practice in law firms, but amongst the client community too. There is a greater acceptance of flexible working but a balance needs to be maintained between retaining excellence, flexibility and being robust about creating a positive future for all the practitioners that are coming behind us.”

The IBA’s 50/50 by 2030 research project showed that in other markets there had been more progress made, with Uganda (49% and 40%) and Nigeria (40% and 46%) showing a higher percentage of women in law reaching senior roles.

The research, part of nine-year study of different jurisdictions, also showed that the most popular gender initiatives are flexible working arrangements, coaching and mentoring programmes.

The least popular gender initiative across the different jurisdictions is quota setting, a point Kathleen Harris echoes.

She said: “I believe there’s little appetite for quotas across the sector, the focus should be on talent retention and promotion. I do believe that a greater acceptance of flexible working alongside positive cultures could potentially benefit many women in the profession who want to develop their practices and overall skills.

“We’ve got further to go as a profession, but I think there’s a wider acceptance now that there is a problem and that we need to enhance all the work that we are doing. We should always challenge ourselves and align our values with the many good people that are within the profession.”

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