Law Society report reveals partner promotions still fail to reflect rising tide of female lawyers

The latest annual statistical report from The Law Society has confirmed the extent to which law firms have so far failed to react to the increase in women in the profession, with the number of female solicitors nearly doubling over the last 10 years.

The report – Trends in the Solicitors Profession – published earlier this month, showed that between 2000 and 2010 the number of women holding practising certificates rose by 80%, although the profession as a whole has grown by only 42%.

Women now make up nearly half (46%) of all solicitors with practising certificates. More significantly, they have represented the majority of law firms’ trainees every year since 1999-2000, edging up to count for 63% of trainees in 2009-10.

Most of these women are employed within private practice, with 70% of female solicitors holding jobs in law firms, compared with 76% of men.

However, despite the increasing numbers of women entering the profession, the rise is not reflected in partner promotions. In total, the statistics show there were 8,002 female partners last year – equating to 6.8% of solicitors on the roll, or 21% of the number of women solicitors working in private practice. In contrast, there were 23,458 male partners at 31 July 2010 – equating to just under half of all male solicitors working in private practice and holding a practising certificate.

The disparity is reflected in this year’s promotion round, with Allen & Overy, for example, making up only two women out of a total of 21, while women accounted for just over a quarter of Linklaters’ 18-strong promotion round.

The Law Society report also shows ethnic diversity is not increasing, with the number of black and minority ethnic (BME) trainees remaining relatively static at around 20% over the last few years rather than increasing.

Meanwhile, the total number of BME lawyers make up 12% of all solicitors on the roll and around 11% of those with practising certificates. London firms have somewhat better diversity statistics, employing nearly half of all BME solicitors.

At Norton Rose, which at 36% has a higher BME recruitment rate than the average, head of human resources Lak Purewal (pictured) said: “What we find is that we don’t have trouble attracting female or BME candidates but the challenge for law firms generally is to also ensure that they are being retained and promoted. How long it will take before we see significant results from our efforts is a difficult question to answer, but what we can say is that it is an area we are targeting actively and we are making progress.”

Hogan Lovells associate director of legal resourcing Clare Harris (pictured) said: “Many women are attracted to the legal profession at trainee level, which is positive. However, retaining women to reach more senior roles can be a challenge. We hope that by attracting women at the trainee level this situation will eventually change.”

The 2010 report also highlights the oversupply of legal education places compared with the number of training contracts. The number of training contract places available fell by 16% last year to 4,874 and by 23% from a 2007-08 peak of 6,303.

The news comes alongside a 5% rise in the number of full or part-time Legal Practice Course (LPC) places, to 15,166. The College of Law is the largest single provider, offering 4,750 full-time places in 2010 – with BPP Law School offering 2,915, equating to 63% of the full-time LPC market.

Purewal added: “Those who enrol on these courses must go into it with their eyes open, but hopefully those that can’t find a job as a solicitor can use the qualification elsewhere. A legal qualification can also be used to open doors in other sectors.”

In numbers

150,128 – the number of solicitors on the roll

117,862 – the number of solicitors with practising certificates

53,966 – the number of female solicitors with practising certificates

8,002 – the number of female partners

13,104 – the number of solicitors from minority ethnic groups with practising certificates

86,748 – the number of solicitors in private practice