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Our collective responsibility to help facilitate equality in the business of law

  • Jessica Woodhouse
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Jessica Woodhouse

Jessica Woodhouse

Vice President

Former Vice President, LicenseLogix

In early March we gathered almost all of Burford’s women across our Chicago, London and New York offices to discuss the 2020 International Women’s Day theme #EachforEqual, the challenges facing women in law and potential solutions we can all help push forward. Many of the points raised reflect the same ideas that we continue to hear from our clients and the legal industry as a whole.

‘Each for equal’ means we can each play a role in promoting equality 

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day was ‘each for equal’—which means we should consider the goal of equality and diversity at an individual as well as collective level. We each have the ability with the daily actions we take to impact change, even in small ways. One of our most senior women lawyers gave the following example: “Even something as simple as letting someone else finish their point during a meeting, even though you could say it better or more efficiently, is a micro-instance of supporting someone and supporting equality.”

It is important that those in positions of power, men and women, take on the obligation to promote equality in their organizations and spheres of influence. As a senior woman executive in our New York office put it, “[W]e are all better off, and we all recognize we are better off--men and women--when our institutions, our communities and our culture are equal and treat men and women with respect. It recognizes that it is incumbent on all of us to join together to effect that change.”

Each for equal means, simply, “We each have a responsibility to lift each other up.”

Facilitating equality in the business of law

Despite increasing attention to the problem, the business of law still contains striking gender disparities at top echelons. Although half of all law school graduating classes have been women for many years in the UK and US, women still only account for roughly 20% of law firm equity partners in both jurisdictions.

There are many reasons for this, but as one junior member of the London team succinctly put it, “Equality always comes back to opportunity.” Law firms need to provide women with the opportunities to succeed. This could be more senior partners handing client relationships to women. Or this could take the form of giving a woman lawyer the opportunity to lead a high-profile complex litigation or arbitration matter and earn important credit which will leave her in a favorable light for career advancement. This was the impetus and inspiration behind The Equity Project.

Flexible parental leave can also play a part in facilitating equality. A junior member of the Chicago team explained the importance of gender-neutral parental leave: “When we speak about parental leave instead of maternity and paternity leave respectively, we should characterize this as primary and secondary caregiver, so that it is gender neutral. It is important that people take full advantage of the benefits that are offered so that those for whom it is not an option are not penalized for doing so.” If male lawyers actually take the full extent of the time off they are given, it allows women to do the same without feeling they will lose opportunities and career momentum by taking the time that they need. 

Men can equally help women progress in their careers by taking on some of the more stereotypically female tasks. “Women can have a tendency to take on more of the ‘mental load’ in the workplace—that’s the behind-the-scenes tasks and details that are time consuming and often not celebrated. Many women proactively take on these additional tasks. That choice can be diminishing and comes at the cost of other work.”

This is more relevant than ever amidst the COVID-19 pandemic with a large proportion of the world’s global workforce now working remotely. As families scramble to balance work and childcare in a society that still sees women doing most of the domestic tasks, men have the opportunity to step up and take on some of this responsibility.

Having senior women in positions of power can help

Simply having women in leadership positions both at law firms and companies can have a positive influence on young women advancing in their careers. As one junior Burford woman articulated, “The trickle-down effect of seeing more women at the top sends a strong message for younger women.”

Seeing women lead authentically in a way that may be different than how men lead demonstrates that there isn’t just one way of being an effective leader and that one does not necessarily need to project stereotypically masculine traits to get ahead. “The more senior women you have at the top, the more you can see different leadership styles and how they work in the business environment. It can be a representation of how to act in a professional capacity without having to always mirror senior men.”

The Equity Project as a tool for championing gender diversity

The Equity Project was launched in October 2018 to tackle the gender diversity problem in law through a $50 million pool of capital reserved for financing women-led matters. Some of the initiative’s success thus far comes down to its propensity to drive conversation around the problem. A senior Chicago lawyer noted that “Often when a company is in litigation it turns to the most senior attorney at their firm of choice (typically a man), and The Equity Project is successful for me because it opens the conversation and dialogue around this for clients and encourages them to give a woman litigator the leading role.”

The Equity Project also offers a window of opportunity for women lawyers to demonstrate their support of both their women colleagues and even their competitors. A senior London based woman described the unity of purpose The Equity Project provides: “What I have found interesting and refreshing is when I have meetings with partners on The Equity Project, they will invariably ask who else they can introduce me to or how else they can help to support the initiative. If you go to a normal meeting you don’t often get that. The Equity Project brings out a side of women that shows we can be more inclined to help each other build our networks and be supportive rather than clambering and competing.”

The Equity Project also offers a practical solution to the problem using an economic incentive. As a Burford senior woman noted, “I regularly visit law firms and have often found myself at tables with law firm decision-makers and no women present. In fact, I will often be the only woman in the room. When I bring up The Equity Project, those male partners in firm leadership jump at the chance to hear about it and want to introduce it to their women partners because they too are often at a loss at how to improve gender balance at their firms.”

The Equity Project is an effective tool for levelling the playing field because it is an initiative that allows law firms to support the women lawyers in their firm and a business incentive to do so. Through The Equity Project, Burford has demonstrated its commitment to facilitating equality in the business of law, but it is important that we ‘each’ individually and collectively take on the responsibility to push towards a more equal world.