The Law Society of Northern Ireland has issued a call for participants for a research study into women’s experiences of working in the solicitors’ profession in the jurisdiction.
“Recent research has highlighted a significant mid-career migration of practising female solicitors from roles in private law firms to the public sector and other legal roles, and out of the profession entirely,” the Law Society said.
The body wants to gather evidence, and explore the reasons for these trends, in a bid to improve the experiences of females within the solicitor profession.
“We would therefore particularly like to hear the views of females who have left private practice and moved to in-house/public/third sector roles, or who have left the profession entirely,” a spokeswoman said.
The Law Society of Northern Ireland published a diversity and equality study of the profession in 2022, which contained findings of a late-2021 survey.
As a result, it was decided to carry out a further in-depth qualitative research project with female leavers from private legal practice.
The goal is to gain a better understanding of why women have left private practice, and to ascertain what might have encouraged them to stay or to re-enter in future.
Men dominate senior roles
The survey showed that, despite women comprising the majority of working solicitors, men account for most senior roles in law firms.
In all, 58% of partners and directors in private practice are male. The Roll of Solicitors indicates that men make up an even greater proportion of partners and senior consultants in private practice, while public sector and in-house legal roles are significantly majority female,
“This is clear evidence that circumstances exist within the private sector which do not support women advancing in the same way as men. Commentary from the survey indicated this may be linked to several issues, including:
- Lack of maternity and return-to-work support,
- Lack of flexible working and other support for those with young children,
- Lack of reward compared to male counterparts,
- Preferential treatment of male counterparts – including promotion opportunities.
One respondent said: “The profession is misogynistic and places too much emphasis on who can work the most or longest hours or sacrifice the most”.
Another said: “As a mother of daughters I would not encourage my daughters to enter the profession. There are no benefits at all for women in private practice. Maternity pay and sick pay are lacking.”
Another said that private practice failed to support women, and that this resulted in segregation and lower career expectations for women, with many leaving for the public sector.
Female respondents to the survey earned £44,600 on average, versus an average for male respondents of £58,410. A significant number of respondents, and those in senior positions, chose not to answer this question, making the findings difficult to validate.
A full 98% of respondents to the survey recorded their ethnic group as ‘white’, while almost one in five came from disadvantaged backgrounds. Over four in five respondents came to the profession via the grammar school education system, while two in five had parents who were university-educated.
Based on the occupation of the first parent, 70% of respondents’ parents would be categorised as white-collar occupations (compared with 45% of the population).
Another respondent said that while their university experience at QUB was highly diverse, professional practice had been distinctly lacking in diversity.
“I think we need to do more to diversify our legal population and to make it more welcoming for minorities, who are often instead taking up opportunities in the likes of London,” the respondent continued.