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The comeback kids

November 2022

Gender diversity – a hot topic of conversation among legal industry insiders and analysts.

One that is never too far away from the pages of the legal, business, and mainstream press.

Law firms have understandably been at pains to promote the efforts they put into diversity, equality, and inclusion. This is readily apparent these days from the law firm websites, marketing materials, or their rankings in various surveys and publications. This push is not only a recognition that they still lag other industries but is increasingly a result of direct client pressure.

According to the latest figures from The Law Society, in July this year there were 153,282 solicitors practising in England and Wales, a 2% rise over the previous year. The number has more than doubled over the past 25 years. The research reports that women account for 53% of practising solicitors.

But looking at the statistics at partner level there is still some way to go.

So, where do we see the opportunities to further redress the balance.

In the era of flexible working, organisations should now be reaping the benefits of a more open-minded approach to the way their workforce want to work. In theory, this provides firms with access to an untapped pool of talent that they have neglected up until now – namely, lawyers who have left the law (for various reasons but largely to start a family) and feel there is no clear path or encouragement to return.

A talent pool they seem tentative to try and access. Many firms (US as well as UK) have in the past flown to far-flung jurisdictions to unearth well trained- common law qualified lawyers. Granted, this would normally focus on junior lawyers but not exclusively. Australia, New Zealand, and Canada were, and remain, happy hunting grounds. A diverse and deep talent pool sitting in front of them is oddly not.

One could equate the loss of female lawyers in their late 30s/early 40s to the way many UK firms turn their senior partners out to pasture once they hit 55. By that we mean, here you have these talented and experienced professionals, and an organisation does not see a role or even a desire to find a role for them. We find that quite strange.

We would be asking the organisations that track statistics around gender diversity is what percentage of law’s female lawyers ever come back, who have left for whatever reason? To continue that train of thought through to its conclusion, another question might be: what proactive steps do law firms take in making a return appealing, and easier once you have been out for several years?

Several avenues and options should, in this post-Covid era, be open to lawyers who have returned to the law following a period away from it.

These options provide both firm and lawyer with flexible options – be that to turn a role into something more permanent or not. 

Looking at the other side of the coin, not all of this is doom and gloom. Some law firms have teamed up with organisations that have identified this area as a glaring omission. Women Returners is a network that was established in 2014 and is dedicated to not only supporting women to return to the workplace after an extended break, but also to encourage employers to take advantage of this talent pool. Women Returners has partnered with a range of employers across a variety of sectors, including the Big Four, the Bank of England, the BBC, and law firms.

Other firms have joined forces with the Reignite Academy, a similar initiative to Women Returners. Reignite was established in 2019 and aims to help women return to work, specifically in the legal sector, providing support and coaching as they transition back into permanent roles. Reignite has partnered with several law firms, including CMS, Hogan Lovells, Sidley, Travers Smith, Baker McKenzie, Mayer Brown and Macfarlanes.

Other firms have chosen their own path by creating their own specific programmes. DAC Beachcroft launched their returners programme, Reconnect, in October 2020. The programme was created by Nicola Baxter, a HR business partner, who recognised that many talented lawyers faced multiple barriers that prevented them from returning to work.

One leading US firm that appears to be open to tapping into this pool of talent is Latham & Watkins as set out in the (requires subscription) article dated 14 October 2022 setting out the hire of leveraged finance partner, Tania Bedi after a five-year career break. Ms. Bedi now finds herself in a leadership role at Latham.

Win-win we would say and dispels the myth that you cannot regain the skills/knowledge lost from being ‘out of the game’.

The Latham example should be the model in bringing experienced talent back into law. This of course is not exclusive to partners and applies equally across all levels of the legal industry. We would be encouraging firms to look closer to home when assessing their headcount needs.

BBC News