02 Gender Progress is slow but steady for women in law firms

While female lawyers are proportionately represented in law firms overall, women are less likely to be made partner in larger firms. Only 29% of partner roles in large firms are held by women.

Female lawyers roughly correspond with the general population

Women make up 47% of the UK workforce and 51% of the overall population – and these are both roughly in line with the percentage of female lawyers in the UK: 49% in 2019, according to data from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).

In the same year, women accounted for 64% of total staff across law firms of all sizes, and two-thirds of staff (74%) in firms with 6-9 partners. Focusing specifically on non-partner solicitors, the proportion of female solicitors across law firms of all sizes has held steady since 2014 at 59%. Where women shine the most is in firms with 6-9 partners. In 2019, women accounted for 66% of solicitor roles in firms of this size – and this is a step up from 60% in 2014.

While all this looks incredibly promising for women in law firms, there is still room for improvement. A deep dive into the senior roles in law firms finds that women make up only 34% of partners, and this number falls as the size of the firm gets bigger. In firms with 50+ partners, women accounted for a measly 29% of partners in 2019 while the average in smaller firms was 36% in the same year. Unfortunately, this is reflective of the general workforce, with women accounting for only 38% of managerial roles in the UK in 2019.

Distribution of female staff by law firm size in 2019

The proportion of female judges is slowly improving

A small saving grace for the legal industry is that the numbers do reflect an improvement from 2014, where only 25% of partner roles in firms with 50+ partners were held by women. Similarly, the proportion of female court judges has also improved, increasing from 24% in 2014 to 32% in 2019. The proportion of tribunal judges has also jumped 3 percentage points between 2014 and 2019. What’s more, the same report states that female magistrates from 2017 onwards have been appointed at younger ages and with less experience than males, an approach that should hopefully help redress the current gender imbalance at the top.

Hopefully, all these factors will continue to improve as we get ready to welcome the next generation of female lawyers. The student body in the 2019 university cohort were 57% female, which means we may potentially see more women than men looking for roles in law firms upon graduation. All firms, regardless of size, need to ensure they’re fostering a supportive environment for female graduates and trainee lawyers so we can achieve true gender parity at all levels in the industry.

2% of lawyers are transgender

In 2017, the SRA broadened their gender identity questions to include transgender people. With less than 1% of the UK population likely to be transgender, the results suggest that transgender people are overrepresented in the law industry. 2% of participants said they were transgender in 2019. Diving deeper into the roles, 2% of solicitors say they are transgender, as well as 3% of other staff in firms with 10-50 partners and 4% of other staff in firms with 6-9 partners. In all, the numbers suggest the industry is inclusive when it comes to transgender lawyers.

% of female judges in England and Wales

While the figures for transgender people is promising, the lack of diversity in senior judiciary is worrying. A group of upper middle-class white men can’t reflect the views and values of a diverse community, and their biases can influence judgements.

Chikere Igbokwe

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