Being the son of a talented woman, married to a talented woman and father of a talented woman, I personally never find it hard to be motivated when it comes to pushing the agenda of gender equality in our society. However, in my opinion we do not even have to seek inspiration from noble motives. The aim of gender equality could be narrowed down to a simple quest of optimizing the net result of the law firm.
In Denmark 65% of all law students are women, 37% of the lawyers are women, and yet only 14% of the partners in the law firms are women. Those figures obviously do not correlate for much longer. We boast ourselves in our culture of having gender equality, and while it is increasingly true for politics and public administration, business including in the legal business is appallingly far from de facto equality in leadership and ownership.
McKinsey has in a report by the McKinsey Global Institute analysed the economic losses we suffer due to the lack of gender equality. If gender equality was achieved on the global labour market, GDP would grow by USD 12 trillion, which corresponds to the combined GDP of the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan!
On a micro scale just think of what a law firm is losing every time one of our talented female colleagues quits her job in pursuit of a career in a different environment that properly accommodates better for her conditions as a woman. The talent walking out the door has cost the firm a substantial investment in training and development often for many years. She is often appreciated by her colleagues and your clients, and off she goes to use her talent, capacity and competence somewhere else. If you add the talent you cannot retain because you do not offer attractive possibilities and a suitable environment, many partners may start asking themselves how good they are as leaders in looking after the long-term business interests of their law firm.
The reasons for the inequality are many. A male-driven culture, traditionally narrow focus solely on economic performance in profit sharing models, young women losing distance in the career race during maternity leaves, prejudice, fewer female role models, men promoting men etc.
Organisations like the CCBE and the IBA have now put a focus on the challenge and in the Danish Bar and Law Society we have hired an anthropologist to engage in a three-year Ph.d. research project with a view of analysing the reasons for the inequality and proposing specific measures to improve the situation. Hopefully these initiatives will assist us all further in improving the situation, broaden our mindset and implement the necessary changes in culture, habits and structures.
Covid-19 has been an expensive and traumatic experience to the entire world, so let us at least take advantage for the future of some lessons learned from the past year. In this respect it should be evident that we can easily accept and encourage much more flexibility when it comes to working from our homes. We may perform at a high level – sometimes even higher – compared to sitting behind the desk at the office with many people around us, with hours of daily commuting and without receiving arrogant glances when sneaking out “early” to collect the young ones or to simply spend some more time with them before returning to the e-mails and the contracts in the evening.
Don’t we all say that family is our individual priority? Maybe it is time to realize that this does not necessarily result in an evident conflict with the interests of the law firm. Covid-19 has taught us that it is actually possible to maintain efficiency and productivity in combination with more time at home and more flexibility, which is evidently in the interest also of young families, where both parents wish to maintain a professional career e.g. in a law firm.
Human beings do not really like change. We pretend we do, but in fact change also in law firms are usually only chosen, when there is a fundamental need to change. Only when status quo is no longer an option, will we really be prepared to make radical changes. My question is – are we not more or less at that point now?
So, if you consider yourself noble or good at business or maybe even both – perhaps the time has come to start acting on improving the career opportunities for women in the law firms.
Philip S. Thorsen
Partner Mazanti-Andersen, Copenhagen, Denmark
Member of the Council of the Danish Bar and Law Society