More women equals money

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The legal profession is a good barometer of how women are faring generally in the workplace, according to Lady Howe, chairwoman of Opportunity 2000, the employer-led group which campaigns to increase the participation of women in the workforce.

Lady Howe, a former JP, said there was now a "critical mass" of women lawyers working for examples of all types of organisations from big City firms and large chambers to small high street partnerships and as sole practitioners.

Women made up 52 per cent of new solicitors and 40 per cent of new barristers, so charting their progress was a good test of how women were moving up the career ladder, she said.

And that highlighted one area which needed "watching" - the route to partnership. Women have been coming into the profession in increasingly large numbers since the mid-Eighties, but only 14 per cent of women become partners in their first 10 years compared with 27 per cent of men.

So far, only the Law Society and two solicitors' firms - Watson Burton in Newcastle and David Yablon Minton Ellis in Leeds - have become members of Opportunity 2000, launched nearly six years ago.

But Lady Howe said it planned to focus on law firms this year to try to increase membership.

She will speak about the benefits of the campaign and the "business case for equality" at a meeting organised by Young Women Lawyers and the Association of Women Solicitors (London) at the Law Society next Tuesday evening.

She believes attitudes in the legal profession are now more enlightened. In the mid-Seventies, the Equal Opportunities Commission, of which she was then deputy chairwoman, wrote to the Bar Council and Law Society about the new Sex Discrimination Act and the responsibility it placed on them to ensure their members were conversant with it. Lady Howe said: "The Law Society wrote back: 'Lawyers are presumed to know the law.'!"

While they might know the law, many women lawyers question the commitment to equality. Recent Law Society research found women were paid less than their male colleagues, allowing for experience, at every level of the profession.

Lady Howe said joining Opportunity 2000 gave firms the chance to share information about the best practices developed by other members and called on women lawyers to "play their part" in encouraging their firms to join.

"The campaign focuses on the business principle - what are you doing to your bottom line by not being receptive to changes which would allow equally good men and women to come through," she said. "Boots, for example, found it put pounds 1m on its profits because it no longer had to cope with unnecessary turnover of staff. I am not saying every law firm can be flexible but I am sure there is plenty of scope for improvement."

It is that practical approach which has won the support of the Young Women Lawyers group. Set up three years ago, it represents women of less than 10 years' qualification from all sides of the profession, including barristers, solicitors, academics and legal executives.

The chairwoman, Clare McGlynn, a solicitor and law lecturer at the University of Newcastle, has just compiled the results of its latest survey into the numbers of women partners and the "family friendly" employment practices of the largest 200 law firms.

The response rate was disappointing at just under a third, compared with 60 per cent for its survey Soliciting Equality two years ago. However, she argued it still provided an interesting sample of attitudes.

Compared with the 1995 survey, the number of new women partners had risen only two points to 27 per cent among the top 100 firms (26 per cent in the largest 200 firms).

There was an improvement in the number of firms offering paternity leave - up from 24 per cent in the largest 100 firms to 39 per cent, although the figure fell to 30 per cent when taken across the largest 200 firms.

Nearly half of the 200 firms said partners could work part-time, with two-thirds offering part-time work to assistant solicitors. However one firm declared it would consider requests for part-time working from women but "not at all for males". The survey also asked about parental leave, given the European Union directive that provides for three months' unpaid parental leave. Ms McGlynn said only 8 per cent of the largest 200 firms offered parental leave, while others had no idea what it was. "While the current government has not implemented the directive, that could change after the election and firms should be aware of it," she added.

Taking the business case for equality, she said firms invested thousands of pounds in trainee solicitors but seemed happy to spend another pounds 10,000 recruiting a new assistant solicitor rather than be flexible and keep the original employee.

"Opportunity 2000 should appeal to leaders of law firms because it is backed by the CBI and the present government. It is not threatening because it focuses on the business case for equality. This should get senior partners' attention."

She accepted that focusing purely on the economic case meant moving away from the principle that no one should be discriminated against. "But we have to fight with the tools we have and, in the short term, it may mean we make some real gains."

Jenny Staples, chair of the Association of Women Solicitors, agreed: "I think the moral case for treating people fairly is unanswerable. However unless you can also present an economic argument people are not necessarily going to do it."

Earlier this month, several senior employment lawyers, including Cherie Booth QC, Laura Cox QC, who is one of a tiny number of women heads of chambers, Margaret McCabe, a barrister, and Janet Gaymer, a solicitor, launched the Equal Opportunity Action Unit.

The idea is to offer support, guidance and informal mediation for lawyers making a complaint. It is still early days but the unit has already had five cases alleging sex discrimination and two of race discrimination referred to it.

Janet Gaymer, head of Simmons & Simmons' employment law department, said: "The aim of the unit is not so much to provide a raft of free employment law advice as to act in a co-ordinating role so the existing anti-discrimination procedures are better used and understood."

She took a robust view of equality. "As a manager, anything which deprives me of an employee who would be good for the business is bad news whether it is because of gender, ethnic minority, origin or disability. Women are a high profile example of a bad use of resources.

"But it is important how you put the case. I prefer to put it as a manager running a business and wanting to employ and keep the best people. Presenting the case as a high moral principle can be an unruly horse to ride.

"However, when my 19-year-old daughter asked me recently about becoming a lawyer I found myself being very cautious and that dismayed me - it is quite an indictment of the profession."

Grania Langdon-Down

Call Clare McGlynn on 0191 222 7616 for information about the Opportunity 2000 meeting.

The campaign focuses on what you do to the bottom line by not being receptive to change

Lady Howe

Presenting the case for equality as a high moral principle can be an unruly horse to ride

Janet Gayner

Firms should be aware of the EU directive that could provide for unpaid parental leave

Clare McGlynn

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