Gender diversity, Female Partnership targets and the Canadian example

On Monday, Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co (WLG) became the latest UK law firm to introduce targets for female partnership. Keeping in line with others in the industry, the firm has committed to increase its proportion of female partners from 20% to 30% by 2026. This mirrors targets set by Linklaters, Berwin Leighton Paisner and Baker & McKenzie set to expire in 2018, and commitments made by Norton Rose Fulbright, Herbert Smith Freehills and Pinsent Masons to improve female partnership numbers over the long term.

The move has been prompted by Wragge’s impending merger with Canadian firm Gowlings, who have a current female partnership rate of 27%. This greatly exceeds progress made in the UK and Canadian market more generally, where average female partnership numbers currently stand at 22% and 20% respectively. However, the boost in female partnership numbers at Gowlings have been achieved without the introduction of female partnership targets, with the targets introduced by Wragge applying exclusively to their partnership when the firm’s merge under an umbrella structure to create Gowling WLG at the end of the month.

Diversity Targets – To implement or not to implement?

The inclusion of female partnership targets as part of a wider Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) strategy is subject to much contention within law firms. A firm’s announcement of female partnership targets demonstrates a clear commitment to the issue from senior management, which creates accountability to enforce change that filters down to practice heads and partners. Unlike other initiatives, the introduction of female partnership targets provide a concrete benchmark against which the impact of other policies to improve gender diversity can be measured. More broadly, the introduction of female partnership targets, and discussion of what needs to be improved to achieve them, increases visibility of the issue amongst firms and prompts dialogue about how best to enforce change.

Despite this, the introduction of female partnership targets also risk alienating other (majority and minority) segments of the workforce, or at worse enforce positive discrimination. Women themselves often dislike the idea of female partnership (or boardroom) targets, and the associated tokenism this brings as opposed to promotion based on individual hard work and merit. Other strands of diversity, such as BAME, disability and social mobility are also not ordinarily measured by targets. More fundamentally, some commentators question whether female partnership targets are realistic, and if such numbers are even achievable by UK law firms. For example, findings from The Lawyer’s Diversity Audit revealed that female partnership numbers across the UK100 have remained at the same level as they did in 2010.

The Canadian example

This brings us back to Gowlings, and a select number of other Canadian firms, who have increased their proportion of female partners without the introduction of targets. As well as women making up close to a third of Gowling’s partnership (119 of 433 partners), women also lead over half the firm’s offices and one of the co-managing partners is a women. Furthermore, Gowlings only committed to a firm-wide D&I initiative in 2014 – four to five years behind the majority of the UK legal market. So what accounts for the firm’s progress, and what, if anything, could be transferable to UK law firms?

Closer inspection of the Canadian legal market reveals that, although a gender gap in partnership definitely still persists, more consistent gains are being made across the province-based law societies. For example, in Ontario of the 41% of the legal profession that are women – 23% of them are partners. A reason for this is the number of larger scale province wide initiatives that do not comparatively exist in the UK. The best example of this is the Justicia project, which after initially being established to survey gender diversity in private practice, now provides resources and toolkits on issues such as pathways to partnership, flexible working and business development. The project also developed a template to help the 57 participating firms to accurately track their gender demographics for the long term. For firms participating in Justicia, the proportion of female equity partners rose by 67% in 2012, 80% in 2013 and 44% in 2014.

Gender diversity initiatives in Canadian firms themselves also differ in approach to those often implemented in the UK, such as women’s networks and mentoring schemes. As well as greater participation in province-wide initiatives, law firms place greater emphasis on training – especially increasing skills of business development. The ability to generate business and spot opportunities for growth underpins the success of any lawyer to make it to partnership, but can be overlooked in favour of networking or mentoring for example. Blake Cassels & Graydon, a Canadian firm with 25% female partnership, introduced a ‘Make it Rain’ training programme where successful partners ran business development training sessions with mid-level associates.

Finally, another insight into the success of Canadian law firms to advance female lawyers comes from the demand from their clients. Similar to the US, general counsel have become much more explicit in their desire to see diversity in the teams of lawyers that service them, asking directly for a firm’s demographics, the gender balance of the team they are working with, and the initiatives in place to increase gender diversity in the future. Beyond this, GC’s from a number of Canadian corporates established Legal Leaders for Diversity and Inclusion (LLD), a public interest group to lobby for a more inclusive legal profession across all strands of diversity. As part of this, corporate clients agree to consider diversity in their purchasing and hiring practices, and to encourage their external legal counsel to do the same. In 2013, in a commitment to promote diversity in their firms and work with LLD and other general counsel, sixteen leading Canadian law firms came together to create The Law Firm Diversity and Inclusion Network (LFDIN) to share ideas about how best to increase diversity and inclusion in the sector.


By looking at the Canadian example, it is clear to see that increased female partnership numbers have come from the greater push of external factors on law firms, rather than internal firm initiatives alone. This does not deny the individual effort of Canadian law firms, which has undoubtedly been great, but states that such effort has grown out of a wider culture of accountably bred by clients and diversity organisations. This has been successful in the absence of firms setting female partnership targets – as in this context, they were simply not needed.

This provides important transferable lessons to the UK legal market about ways to increase gender diversity, upon which progress has started to stagnate. The implementation of intra-firm and regional based projects could easily be replicated in the UK, and to an extent has already been achieved in increasing access to the legal sector by PRIME. Building upon the success of the 30% Club, a more pointed legal-based public interest group comprising large clients and their general counsels could also serve to provide the greater push needed to ensure gender, and other diversity stands continue to be addressed by law firms.

The implications of this will become more important in the future, as by 2020 women are expected to account for more than half of the solicitors in the UK, for the first time becoming the majority gender in the profession. As such, law firms cannot afford to ignore the financial, resourcing and moral implications of not getting their gender diversity initiatives right.

Female partnership targets or not, ultimately gender diversity initiatives need to be tailored to a firms’ organisational culture, existing D&I initiatives and current level of gender balance. Whilst it is positive that Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co have joined the host of other UK law firms in publicly announcing their commitment to increasing gender diversity, we stand to learn a lot from the Canadians about how best to see these targets through.

Fides Search strives to push the boundaries of recruitment and consultancy work, thought leadership is central to this. We focus on our client’s objectives and challenges and aim to help them achieve their goals through our approach and insight. Diversity remains a challenging topic for our private practice and in-house clients. This blog forms part of a Diversity series that we will be reporting on throughout the year, with a more in-depth article on Gender Diversity in the legal sector to be released to celebrate International Women’s Day on the 8th March. Please contact research@fidessearch for further details

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