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Why are there so few women partners in City law firms?

The number of female partners in City law firms remains stubbornly low

23 September 2013

 City law firms attract plenty of talented female lawyers. Over the past decade, women have consistently comprised approximately 60% of City law firm’s new trainees. 

Despite making up the majority of hires, and outperforming male counterparts in university, female lawyers currently hold only 18% of firm partner positions. 

Both quantitative and qualitative factors influence this vast gender discrepancy in the balance of City law firm partners. 

Reasons for the dearth of female partners

Partnership eligibility is usually determined in part by billable hours, a calculation which provides only a crude measure of capability and merit. Women, who often still hold the primary care-giving roles in families, are often at a disadvantage when it comes to combining the demands of work and family life and some of the gender discrepancy in City law firm partnerships can simply be put down due to the heavy workload and time demand on lawyers.

Despite progressive developments in gender-based family care obligations; as noted above, female lawyers are currently still more likely than male lawyers to have to balance  the competing priorities of career and family. Unsurprisingly, many decide that a 70 to 80 hour working week is not compatible with childcare.  

Due to this conflict, firms are often losing their accomplished female lawyers before they have progressed along the partner track.  As a consequence, younger female lawyers also have few female partner role models to provide mentorship and guidance, exacerbating this cycle. 

Mitigating the career-family conflict

Firms have attempted to mitigate the burden on lawyers with conflicting family and work obligations by instituting programs to facilitate shorter working hours. However, in a competitive legal environment, billable hours are still an often used factor in assessing partnership eligibility and merit. Changing rules is one thing; changing culture is a different story.

Whatever new programs are introduced, taking advantage of shorter working hours is, unfortunately, sometimes seen as a weakness and a detriment to a lawyer’s career.  By way of example, City firm Allen & Overy, whose equity partnership is 13% female, recently offered a reduced-hours program to much acclaim; however, only 15 partners accepted. Seasoned City lawyers believe this type of result is unsurprising due to the perceived stigma associated with working fewer billable hours than peers.

Subtler issues at work

Another issue that has been gaining traction in HR circles and, more recently, in the mainstream press, is that of unconscious bias. It suggests that female lawyers are also subject to the legal industry’s unconscious perpetuated bias, a much more subtle force than outright gender discrimination. 

The theory suggest that all people make decisions with an unconscious ‘affinity bias’, selecting peers, leaders, and promotions based on personal similarities.  Historically, partners in City law firms have been predominately male and white.  Affinity bias suggests that existing partners are likely to choose new partners who reflect their own traits, albeit completely unintentionally.


City firms are trying to address the factors contributing to a glass ceiling for female lawyers by implementing more transparent promotion procedures and by holding training and education sessions on unconscious affinity bias.  These developments are to be welcomed.  In the meantime, however, it is clear that female City lawyers still face formidable obstacles to partnership.   Employees concerned about gender discrimination issues in the workplace should seek specialist legal advice. For more information call 020 7650 1200 today and speak to one of our expert employment lawyers.

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