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Women lead the way in profession
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06 Apr 2018 / Employment Print

Ireland leads way on female partnership in firms

As the Law Society was proud to proclaim in 2015, the first legal profession in the world where the majority of practising members is female was the solicitors’ profession in Ireland.

Women now comprise 52% of the profession.

Irish solicitors are leading the rise of women in the legal profession globally – not just in total numbers, but also in representation at the most senior levels.

It was reported recently in The Irish Times that, in February 2017, a total of 33% of partners in the six largest firms in the country were women. In March 2018, this percentage had grown to 35% in the six largest firms.

This percentage is almost twice that of the largest firms in England and Wales, where the representation of women partners is a paltry 18%.

When we look at all firms in Ireland, the proportion of women partners in 2018 drops slightly from 35% in large firms to 33% across the profession.

Contrast this with other jurisdictions, and the Irish profession’s leadership in gender diversity becomes clear. In Australia, female partnership representation sat at 25% in 2017.

This was up slightly from 2016, when the percentage of female partners in Australia was 24%. In the US, the American Bar Association reported that just 22% of partners were women in 2016.

This is not to say that we can’t do more to promote equality at all levels of the solicitors’ profession, including at partner level.

Senior positions

Change doesn’t happen overnight, so members of the profession and the Law Society are actively supporting women to reach senior positions through mentoring and return-to-work programmes.

The Law Society has run the ‘Law and Women Mentoring Programme’ for three years to help more women reach partner and managing partner level in the profession. To date, 62 successful pairs of mentor and mentee relationships have been created.

The relationships often comprise women in very senior roles helping women part-way up the ladder to reach more senior positions.

Balancing commitments outside of work, including family needs, necessitates close management.

Interviewed on Drivetime on International Women’s Day, the Law Society’s junior vice president Michelle Ní Longáin explained that law is a challenging and demanding job – solicitors work with clients at critical times, and people choose ways to make their job work for their families and their own lives.

Many women and men take extended career breaks to fulfil family care commitments and, here too, the Society works to help these members return to practice when they’re ready. The ‘Return to Work Programme’ assists solicitors who have been out of work for an extended period, and wish to resume work, by providing the necessary information and tools for a successful return.

In the two years that this programme has been running, 34 members have taken part, with a further 40 members signed up to participate in 2018.

Strength through diversity

Individual firms and the profession generally benefit from diversity. A workplace that is more diverse in terms of gender, race, culture, age, socioeconomic background, religion, and sexual orientation is more entrepreneurial and hospitable to new ideas.

Solicitors’ firms know that implementing policies of diversity and equality is not just the right thing to do. It is also good for their businesses, the profession, and the public.

As Michelle Ní Longáin explained on Drivetime: “Having men and women in senior roles provides a good balance with different perspectives, voices and understanding.”

The firm in which Michelle is a partner, ByrneWallace, practises this principle. The seventh largest firm in the State has 39 partners, of which 19 (49%) are women.

In the next two issues of the Gazette, Suzanne Carthy will report on a four-year doctoral study of gender equality in the solicitors’ profession in Ireland.

Her in-depth statistical analysis will relate the challenges that female solicitors experience and will address gender inclusion and equality issues for employing firms and the profession.

Women have come a long way from when Mary Dorothea Heron was admitted as Ireland’s first woman solicitor in 1923.

There is, of course, more work to do to promote equality and diversity, particularly at the senior level of the profession. But we are moving in the right direction.

Teri Kelly
Teri Kelly is Director of Representation and Member Services at the Law Society