“The family issue is just a fig leaf…”

Sascha Grimm – co-founder of Women Lawyers in London – on why females leaving law has more to do with gender inequality in the legal profession than the “family issue”…

Sascha Grimm is an associate on the commercial litigation team at Cooley UK. She is also co-founder of WILL – Women Lawyers in London – and a recent winner of the WeAreTheCity Rising Star 2015 award in the law category.


WILL is a network focused on associate-level women. Its goal is to support women lawyers to reach the top of the profession . The major issue we face is the disparity between the high number of junior female lawyers versus the small number of female lawyers who do eventually reach senior positions.

Around 61 per cent of all lawyers under the age of 36 are women but just 12-18 per cent of partners at the top City law firms are female.

So the legal industry has no problem in attracting female talent but it has real difficulty in nurturing and developing that talent through the partnership. The question is: why aren’t women being retained and promoted to more senior levels?

The fig leaf

Many firms say that they want to find the answer and are willing to engage with the problem. Often, the first thing they raise is the “family issue” – and frame it as women making a free choice to leave work and have children. But we are coming to the view more and more that it is just an excuse – a convenient fig leaf for law firms that hides other issues and prevents real change. Furthermore, it has become such a common view, that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Of course it is difficult to raise a family and be a lawyer. Yet lots of women do it. And that positive message isn’t always recognised or promoted. Sometimes there’s a kind of acceptance within the profession – particularly management – that it’s simply too difficult to do both and that’s why women leave the profession. Once this has become the “accepted truth”, it allows firms to see the issue of female retention as something out of their control.

That’s the wrong message. It covers up other issues like unconscious bias or the tendency to recruit and promote in your own image – things that are far more difficult to pinpoint but which firms can, and must, take steps to change.

The average age that women leave the law is between 36-40 – at exactly the age when many are looking at promotion to partner. As we examined the data, including that gathered through our WILL Survey conducted in July 2015 in connection with Kings’ College London, and spoke to people at our networking events, we realised this was not down to women leaving for family reasons, creating a smaller potential promotion pool made up of men . Quite the opposite. It appears that female lawyers were in the running for promotion but weren’t being chosen. And as a result they were then leaving the industry. Coupled with this was the fact that they were not being encouraged and told that promotion was possible if they wanted a family.

This suggests that it’s not an attritional issue. It’s a promotion issue. So we cannot just say that women are opting out for family reasons, they are choosing to leave. And if they are leaving by choice, what are the reasons driving those choices? Is it because they believe the “accepted truth” that it is too difficult to be a partner and have a family? Or is it that they are not being pulled up? We have to keep pressure on management and ask them what they’re doing to promote and engage with women.

Positive action

Lots of firms are working on this. They’re looking at their statistics and processes and creating policies that positively change the figures. But there’s so much more that could be done.

First, the commitment to Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) and the promotion of a diverse workforce has to be a genuine commitment. Firms need to be looking at what value they place on D&I, for example, does it form part of performance review and are those who are not on board being brought into line?

Second, it has to be commitment that comes from the top that is enforced rigorously. Many firms think that just because they’ve got a women’s group or the odd initiative on the go that they’ve covered it.

The profession also needs to look at other sectors. Some accountancy firms are further ahead due to simple ideas like flexible working (for both men and women) – something that some law firms still haven’t got a handle on.

Finally, firms need to realise that diversity is a commercial issue. For example, when exceptional female lawyers choose to leave to focus on their families –or for other reasons – that decision has serious commercial implications. As such, it should be dealt with in the same way that firms address other commercial issues. Why wouldn’t you do everything possible to keep your (female) stars?

There’s a WILL so there’s a way

There’s a lot left to do but we’ve got plenty of energy and enthusiasm to do it. We launched WILL in July 2014 and have had a huge take up. By the time of our launch event with London Lord Mayor Fiona Woolf, we already had 1,200 members. We realised we’d hit a nerve.

Now we’ve got two streams. The first focuses on members at an individual level. We hold informal networking events every month and more formal events with speakers or panels every quarter. We also offer training, webinars and external coaching through something called WILL Power.

The second focusses on working with firms and companies to encourage them to implement new policies. We bring representatives of women’s groups together, exchange ideas and experiences and share good practice.

Senior buy-in

As well as being focused on associate-level women, we also invite general counsel and partners to sign up as champions. We’ve now got over 1,800 members and within that a few hundred champions. So it’s a good body of people and a strong foundation on which to continue to build.

It’s a work in progress, but we feel like we’re fighting the good fight. And we might just win it yet…

For more details of WILL head here.