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Gender diversity in legal directories: can we do better?

January 26, 2023

As we near the end of 2020 and with the majority of legal directory rankings now released, we can look back at whether there have been improvements with regard to gender diversity in legal directories. This topic is gathering increasing attention within the industry. In 2019, Chambers and Partners launched their D&I Charter. They announced a series of pledges to drive more diversity in the legal profession. This included hiring a new Head of Diversity & Inclusion, Dee Sekar. However, a few months later, the 2019/20 rankings were released. Chris Arnold, a Partner at Mayer Brown specialising in Derivatives and Structured Products, criticised Chambers and Partners when he learnt that there was only one woman ranked in his specialism alongside 16 men. He asked for his removal from the rankings, to drive awareness of the “completely unrepresent[ed] extraordinary female talent in this sector”. His post, published on LinkedIn, has been viewed 43,000 times, which brings us to the 2020/21 research cycle. We consider the progress of diversity in the legal directory rankings during the past year.

The legal directory ranking results are in for gender diversity

In the wake of several initiatives implemented by Chambers and Partners, the Chambers UK and UK Bar guides for 2021 have demonstrated increases in gender diversity and equality both across the board and in many practice areas. The rankings show nearly complete parity in the gender split. This year, new rankings comprised 52% men to 48% women. The previous year the split was 58/42 male to female. In the 2016 Bar guide, 78% of all rankings were men while 22% were women. This year’s guide has seen a small increase to 26% women. What is encouraging though are the results at the junior end of the bar. The percentage of 'Up and Coming' female barristers in the 2021 guide now stands at 43%. This is up from 30% in 2020, a strong 13% increase in a year. Moreover, there are improvements across all individual categories. In the ‘Star Associates’ category (the top ranking available for associates), 65% of new rankings were for female practitioners, representing a 7% increase from 2020’s cycle. This is also apparent in Band 1 and Band 2. Together with Star Associates, there was an 11% increase of the number of female lawyers up to 44% from 33% in 2020.There has also been a number of improvements in specific practice area categories. Health & Safety achieved over parity for the first time with 55% female solicitors (a 6% increase). Civil Fraud experienced a boost in female representation by 4.6%, bringing it to 30%.

Improvements seen around the world

We can also see improvements in the Chambers USA guide. In this year’s cycle, 32% of newly ranking lawyers are female. This is up from 25% in the 2019/20 guide. Similarly, Chambers Latin America has reported that there has been a 3% increase in the number of female ranked lawyers over the last five years. They also highlight that 19% of all individual rankings in the guide are now female. These are encouraging signs across all seniorities and between multiple regions of Chambers’ guides. While there is still progress to be made, we can see that there is a positive uptick of gender diversity in legal directories.

How did Chambers increase gender diversity?

Chambers and Partners has been transparent about the measures they've taken to increase gender diversity in both nominees and referees.

  • Chambers researchers speak to an even spread of male and female lawyers.
  • The introduction of D&I themes into research interviews.
  • Researchers undergo D&I training so that they can analyse submissions to spot subtle biases or inconsistencies.

In a podcast by Chambers UK and UK Bar, it was revealed that the UK Solicitors and Bar guides have introduced an "Absent Leave" section on their submission template. This is for nominees to explain why Chambers may be seeing less work from them in the research cycle. This reflects any parental leave taken throughout the year and also provides an opportunity to explain sabbaticals or periods of illness. They stress that they handle this information with the utmost confidentiality.

What can law firms do to further facilitate progress on gender diversity in legal directories?

One of the ways law firms can help women in law gain better representation in legal directory rankings lies in tackling unconscious bias. The language used in a reference can and does differ between those of female lawyers and those of male. Some examples of language used to describe female barristers includes the words: thorough, thoughtful, a very nice person, well-organised, responsive, easy to work with, and extremely nice. Words and phrases used to describe male barristers in the same practice areas included: phenomenal advocate, a genius cross-examiner, with an outstanding intellect, razor-sharp mind, frighteningly clever. While there is nothing wrong with the terminology per se, the words and phrases used to describe female lawyers refer more often to the nominee's personality and work ethic rather than being a reflection of their skills, intelligence and tenacity. This linguistic phenomenon has become so apparent in recent years that Allen & Overy's David Stone, Global Head of Intellectual Property, announced that the firm was piloting a project that would monitor the language used to describe its female barristers in nominations. He noted that adjectives used in references for female barristers were often 'softer' and less aggressive than those used to describe their male counterparts.

You can avoid heavily gender-biased references by encouraging referees to:

  • Provide more than monosyllabic appraisals
  • Paint an honest picture of your lawyers’ key skills and intellectual qualities (not just their personality traits)
  • Read through their reference with an eye for any unconscious biases
  • Ask themselves how they'd like to be described in their role. Would they prefer to be described as being 'nice' to work with you or would they hope to be referred to as 'unrivalled legal talent'?

What implications does this have for future gender diversity in the legal profession?

Linguistic amends to a legal directory submission may seem small but all these changes combine to increase the likelihood that women in law secure the rankings they deserve in the legal directories. This, in turn, will ensure more female role models within the industry and inspire more women to enter the legal profession themselves.The statistics from the latest Chambers and Partners UK guide and Bar guide demonstrate that progress has taken place towards establishing more gender diversity in legal directories. As well as the wider legal profession. However, there is still more that we can be doing to fill the gaps. Both on the part of the legal directories and law firms addressing gendered and biased language in submissions and references is a simple way to ensure the representation of your female lawyers in the rankings. In turn, gender diversity can progress even further.

For more information on how to improve your legal directory rankings, you can contact us here.

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