Baker & McKenzie national managing partner Chris Freeland knows that when it comes to women in leadership, the legal profession has a lot of work to do.
The number of women partners in large law firms has long been on the low side, rarely tipping the 20% mark despite considerable attention placed on the issue for years. The pipeline is not the issue, given women have been graduating from law in equal numbers to men since the 1980s.
However, Freeland does note that the firm’s latest round of new partner appointments – to be announced in line with the next financial year – will see its local operations shift its percentage of women partners up from 16% to 19%.
Five of the firm’s seven new partners are female, including three who’ve been promoted from within the firm (one working part-time) and two who’ve come across from other firms. The future female pipeline for partners has also been given a boost, with 13 of the 17 promotions the firm is making at the special counsel and senior associate level female.
Speaking to Women’s Agenda in the lead-up to the official announcement on July 1, Freeland conceded that a 19% figure for women in the partnership is still not good enough (although few of the large law firms can boast that they’re doing much better) and that there are still structural and cultural barriers affecting women in law.
He doesn’t believe there’s single solution to the problem, but prefers to point to a range of initiatives at his firm that he believes can help including targets, the launch of BakerWomen (championed by Bakers Chair of Diversity and partner Anne-Marie Allgrove) covering a suite of gender diversity initiatives, and getting the firm involved in unique opportunities to keep up the conversation, such as its sponsorship of the recent all about women festival at the Sydney Opera House.
And as well as seeking to identify structural impediments that may be affecting the progression of women in law firms (such as the profession’s continued reliance on the billable hour), he’s also calling on young women to personally grab opportunities as they emerge – and warning against feeling the need to be “overqualified” before taking what’s on offer.
Freeland made the point directly to graduates, as a guest speaker at the University of NSW Law School graduation ceremony last week.
Noting that women made up more than 50% of those graduating, he reminded the crowd that these strong rates of female participation at the academic level have been occurring for decades, but such a rate is still not visible in the highest levels of organisations. As a society, he said, we’d all be much better off if women progressed to the leadership positions they deserve.
Freeland encouraged women to “lean in”, like Sheryl Sandberg recommends in her book.
“Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, argues that women tend to lean out waiting until they are overqualified for a new role before taking it on or waiting to be asked before they speak up, mostly unlike their male counterparts,” he said.
“Sandberg contends that women need to lean in more, find their voice and speak up and to trust their ability to juggle competing demands and to do incredible things.”
While there are still too many barriers for women in the legal profession, Freeland hopes this advice may help prepare the next generation for recognising early that such barriers exist, and to see what we can all personally do to address them.
Perhaps then we’ll edge closer to a 50/50 gender split in the partnerships of major law firms. Although we’ll be waiting some time before actually getting there.