Historically speaking, being a woman in the legal sector has not been easy. In fact, it’s only a little over a 100 years since women have had access to the profession at all.
Due to this, it comes as no surprise that the top ranks in today’s legal sector are dominated by men.
And yet, the majority of Law students in the UK are women, with the figure reaching 67% in 2017. Theoretically, this should mean the old gender imbalance at the top of legal sector is on its way out.
The problem is that while many women enter the Law, a disproportionately small number ever reach those positions of seniority, with only 33% of partners being women as of 2017.
Of course, there are many reasons for this disparity. Nevertheless, one of the culprits is glaringly obvious.
Put simply, the work culture in the legal sector, especially among large law firms, is keeping women from realizing their full potential.
For trainees, this comes as no surprise. The industry is known for long working hours and the pressure to be available at any time of day, on any day of the week. Whether this is healthy or not is another question, but it affects young men and women equally.
But sooner or later, both men and women start to think about settling down and raising a family. And that’s when the work culture really starts to matter.
Although society is changing, the reality is that women are still faced with the largest share of the work when it comes to raising children. Even with a supportive partner, it’s a huge commitment and necessitates taking time away from the office, often at a stage when women are beginning to achieve recognition at work.
In an ideal world, it would be possible to opt for a lower intensity work routine in during this period. Unfortunately, while working from home and working part-time are not as unheard of as they once were, old habits are hard to break.
The legal sector tends to inculcate an all-or-nothing approach to work. The pressure to be physically present at the office from dawn until dusk means that many women are faced with a binary option: family or work.
Thankfully, this problem is beginning to get some serious attention. In 2010, the Law Society released a report titled ‘The Barriers to the Career Development of Women Solicitors’. Of those barriers identified, the most predominant was the lack of flexible working practices, alongside the failure of law firms to harness the potential of agile technology to solve these issues.
Flexible working practices are important, because they allow both men and women to continue to work alongside starting a family. Of course, it’s easier to talk about changing work culture than actually change it, especially in a field as competitive as law.
This is where technology comes in, because new tools are enabling new ways of working. The effects have been relatively small as of yet, but they have the potential to radically alter the work-life balance for lawyers.
Some examples are obvious. Using E-signatures means lawyers do not have to be physically present to sign a document. Contract Management Software (CMS) allows teams to work together on a contract easily, from different locations.
It’s important to note that we’re at the very beginning of these changes. As law firms get used to the idea of the cloud, and as a new generation of lawyers climbs the ranks, we may well see a fundamental shift in the way the legal sector thinks about work.
Outside the legal sector, many geographically scattered teams use Slack, the online collaboration tool. Software developers on different sides of the planet use task management applications like Teamwork to cooperate on important, time-sensitive projects.
Flexible working has never been easier, and that trend will only increase as time goes by. If the legal sector truly embraces these innovations, the result could be to unlock the potential of women in the Law.