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In most countries, women significantly outnumber men in law schools and as associates in law firms. Yet men continue to outnumber women -- often by substantial margins -- in most law firm partnerships and similar senior positions.

A new report by the Legal Policy and Research Unit of the International Bar Association, released today, examines this phenomenon and the steps that law firms should take to respond to this significant loss of legal talent and business leadership. Click here to download Women in Commercial Legal Practice,

It should be mandatory reading in every law firm.

The IBA's findings are not good news.

Women’s representation as partners in law firms remains very low -- less than 20% of equity partners. Discrimination against, and sexual harassment of, women continues to be a significant problem. Moreover, these situations are not confined to only a few countries, but appear in both common law and civil law jurisdictions.

Other points raised by the report include:

  • Mentorship programs are important, but sponsorship is critical. The process by which sponsorship occurs in law firms needs to be formalized and made transparent.
  • Law firms must identify the structural barriers that impede the progress of women and other traditionally disadvantaged groups in the legal profession.
  • The relevance and impact of traditional rules and expectations such as billable hour requirements must be reconsidered. For example, billable hours requirements in many law firms have increased by around 80% since the 1950s, which places an enormous strain on any lawyer who has interests outside of the law firm.

One of the most powerful insights in the report, however, is this implicit -- and on-target -- indictment of traditional approaches to diversity in law firms: 

Diversity policies have not significantly improved gender equity in law firms primarily because such policies are designed to address the problem of women, not the workplace.

As in so many other areas, many law firms tend to prefer to treat the superficial symptoms of a problem, rather investing the candor and intellectual discipline needed to dig down into the culture and paradigms of the firm to find its true causes. 

Norman Clark