Can You Ride Tandem? Tackling Female Partner Drop-off in Large Law Firms

Trevor Clark

The Financial Times ran an interview this week with two female partners who job share at the global law firm Baker & McKenzie’s London office. You can read it here: https://www.ft.com/content/f650bb6a-ca46-11e9-af46-b09e8bfe60c0 .  The FT interview delves a little into the everyday experiences of the two lawyers. It highlights some of the bigger issues and challenges: for example, how they manage to take holidays at the same time during busy school holidays, and the delicate daily decision as to what work to finish and what work to hand on for the other to take forward the next day. The piece is illuminating on some of the finer detail too; for example, how they don’t feel able to turn on their ‘out of office’ messages like some other lawyers do. What comes across strongly is that trust and flexibility are clearly key ingredients in making such an arrangement work.

This piece shines some much needed light on one potential measure that law firm leaders can promote to get more women into partner roles in large corporate law firms. The backdrop is, of course, the staggering drop-off in female solicitors in large City firms as they progress through the firm. There are some recent stats here:  https://www.legalfutures.co.uk/latest-news/growth-in-number-of-solicitors-starts-to-slow Often a 50/50 or so male/female ratio in the new trainee solicitor intake of a large firm drops, at new partner election time, to 20% or less. This has been the case for decades. I recall a similar 50/50 gender split when I joined my former, Magic Circle, firm as an articled clerk in 1991. By the time l I became a partner in 2001 the proportion of females in the cohort had dropped off significantly.  Today, a number of global firms have set themselves a target of 30% or more female partners (and some have taken this further, setting targets of 30% or more female members of the management board of the firm). But firms are struggling to meet these targets (and many were set five years or so ago), and this drop off continues to challenge law firms and their leaders. According to figures from the Law Society published last year, women represent more than half of all practising lawyers and 60 per cent of lawyers who enter the profession are female. Yet at partner level, women make up under 30 per cent. https://www.ft.com/content/e49103f0-e2c2-11e9-9743-db5a370481bc

[paywalled unfortunately]

The reasons for, and potential solutions to and workarounds for, this drop-off issue, are complex and multi-faceted.  For today’s purposes, I just want to raise one or two questions that might benefit from some further thinking (and ideally research), and make some observations, about this partner job-share idea: 

  1. How widespread is this initiative? 

Baker & McKenzie is by all accounts a progressive firm. It would be interesting to know the extent to which other firms are actively promoting job share as an option, not just for partners but also other lawyers in client-facing roles. For example, is this seen in any Magic Circle firms? [Anecdotally,  I hadn’t seen it in my former firm. Job share was common in business services (my PAs job shared very effectively), and in professional support lawyer roles but my feeling is it is less common less in client-facing legal roles.]

2. Can partner job shares work effectively across different practice settings within large firms?

There is a suggestion in the article that the particular work type of the two partners here makes this job share possible (they handle a number of medium sized matters, as opposed to one large matter, at any time). If partner job shares are not promoted in all practice groups of large firms, might this exacerbate the under-representation of women in certain practice areas of large firms? I would like to see this tested as I can’t see any reason why this couldn’t work in other transactional settings – big ticket M&A, for example. Yes there might be some additional practical challenges presented by late night/weekend meetings, overseas trips and tight deal deadlines, but with some expectation management (of clients and other partners), some canny planning and deployment of associates (by the way, partners and senior associates effectively job-share on a daily basis as it is), this should not present a barrier to getting this working across the firm.

3. How do these types of arrangements work in practice settings where client relationships are highly personalised?

Clearly clients need to support these types of arrangements. In certain practice areas (if not across the whole firm), a client relationships can be highly personal, held by one partner, as opposed to an institutionalised relationship between client and firm. When a partner jumps ship to another firm, that client often moves with them. My current empirical research is (among other things)  exploring whether this highly personalised relationship dynamic is stronger in certain practice areas than others.  To make job share work, the client needs to be invested in both partners, but I cant see why this need be a barrier; it comes down to the qualities of the two partners involved and their ability to work effectively together in a way that matches the client’s requirements. One marker that these job shares are working would be when we start to see job sharing partners working  in highly competitive practice areas (like private equity, for example) defecting to another firm in tandem, taking their personal client relationships with them.

4. How does the job share initiative compare with other agile working initiatives promoted by large law firms?

There are other agile working initiatives in addition to job share and all have their pros and cons:  for example, some partners work four day weeks (at least in theory), or take extended leave to coincide with school holidays. Often partners and associates who opt for these arrangements end up taking a cut in remuneration that is not matched by a corresponding cut in their workload or the lifestyle benefits the arrangement was meant to deliver.  Research that compares and contrasts  these arrangements would be valuable, particularly in relation to transactional practice settings in large firms. 

5. How does a job share fit with the professional paradigm?

My current day job involves me researching professionalism in large law firms. At the heart of the traditional legal professional ideal lies the concept of lawyer autonomy; that although lawyers practice together in firms, they have autonomy to select and advise clients, using their professional expertise and judgement. Although there are some very large, corporatised (and fairly hierarchical)  global firms these days, my experience is partners still largely apply their own professional judgement when advising clients on legal matters. An interesting issue on job share is that where two lawyers of equal status advise the client on the same matter this presents the  possibility that they have different views on the legal and other transaction-related questions at hand. How are potential disagreements resolved between them, especially in a fast moving and pressured transactional context? It might be, for example, that a hierarchical relationship develops, where one becomes the more dominant force, with the ability to override the other, if not formally but more as a matter of everyday practice. Again, these and other dynamics of the relationship would be an interesting area for further research.

The FT article demonstrates to me that we could do with some more research on these types of job share arrangements and the everyday challenges lawyers face in making them work. It would be great for law firms (and their female) lawyers if these and other agile working initiatives could be empirically informed by what has worked and not worked so well in the everyday experiences of the lawyers concerned.

One thought on “Can You Ride Tandem? Tackling Female Partner Drop-off in Large Law Firms

  1. Comment on “Can you ride tandem?” The renowned brain surgeon , Henry Marsh , author of inter alia, “Do no harm” wrote awhile ago in “The Guardian” that to his regret women make better doctors than men. Does this apply to women and law- if so the attrition rate of women in the legal profession means that we are losing some of the best.

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