Globally, there are more women in law than ever before. In the UK, for example, the number of practising female solicitors now outnumbers men for the first time in history, according to a Law Society survey published in 2018. This is a true landmark in the journey towards full gender equality in law.
The challenge for law firms everywhere, however, is retaining those women into the senior management and partnership. Gender diversity is incredibly important to Fox Rodney Search and we regularly undertake research into gender diversity to support our clients and candidates in this increasingly vital area. Our recent report, ‘Gender Diversity: Lateral Partner Moves in the London Legal Market in 2018’ shows that in London, around a third of partner hires in the Legal Business Global Top 20 law firms are now women. This is a significant improvement and strong foundations to build on.
As our own firm continues to grow in other countries, we wanted to see how these figures translate to other important markets. Our office in Germany opened in September 2018 and as Europe’s largest economy, Germany is a central location for our clients and an important legal hub, with over 70 UK and US law firms now operating here.
How are law firms present in this market addressing gender diversity? And how far can the legal profession here offer equal opportunities to both men and women into the future?
In keeping with other countries, gender diversity has hugely improved at more junior and associate levels of the legal profession in Germany. Data from the Federal Statistical Office shows that more than half of law students in 2017 were female (around 56%). The number of female lawyers is also rising. Back in 1970, only 4.5% of the 23,000 lawyers in Germany were women, according to the Federal Bar Association (BRAK). By 2018, this figure had increased to a third – with the German Bar Association predicting that proportions will equalise within the next ten years.
However, at partnership levels these figures fall dramatically. According to a BRAK study undertaken in 2018, the ratio of female equity partners in the German legal profession is just 10.7%. Data shared at the 2019 ‘Opportunities for Women in Law’ conference in Vienna, by Dr Geerje Tutschka, CEO of Consulting for Legal Professionals, also suggests that the largest law firms present in Germany appointed only six women out of 50 new partners in 2019. That’s quite a way behind the performance of UK, US and global firms within the London market.
Obstacles to promotion
The demands of equity partner roles may be off-putting for anyone trying to juggle work with childcare. But the real obstacles preventing women from achieving leadership roles in law are more complex.
Some practice groups in law firms present in Germany perform better on gender diversity than others. The proportion of female partners tends to be higher in practices like employment, dispute resolution, EU/competition and IP, where it is easier to provide for some level of workplace flexibility – and where work rates are more predictable. Transactional work such as M&A is much harder to predict and often requires long hours to close deals – not surprisingly these areas tend to be populated far more highly by men, who have traditionally been less likely to need to juggle work with having children.
But generational attitudes and lifestyles are changing in Germany, just like elsewhere. Men and women are demanding different ways of working – younger workers want increased flexibility no matter what the demands of the job, especially as technology allows for remote working and more flexible hours. As men continue to take on a greater proportion of domestic responsibilities, it is not so clear cut that men can still work all the long hours while women take the part-time roles that fit around their children.
In addition, law firms are increasingly working with clients and industries that are themselves facing pressure to be more gender diverse. In 2016, for instance, Germany enacted a law stipulating that large listed companies should have a minimum quota of 30% women on their board. As we see more women taking up senior in-house roles, companies would expect to work with external teams that also reflect the same diversity.
At Fox Rodney Search in Germany, we can see change starting to take root. Larger law firms have introduced family services, childcare facilities and assistance in finding childcare offsite, in some cases supporting this financially to help mothers return to work after having children. Others are allowing for more flexible and part-time work or are introducing schemes to limit non-essential working hours in the week.
Even in the tricky area of M&A, we have seen some significant signs of progress. German commercial firm Oppenhoff & Partner, for instance, has recently enabled two female lawyers to job-share an M&A partner role. This could seriously shake up the established norms of working practice in law and provides a great example of innovative thinking in the German legal market.
Law firms present in Germany still have a journey to make in terms of catching up with the global players in improving gender diversity. And at the most senior levels, law firms present in Germany face a familiar problem in achieving this: senior male candidates with a portable business and considerable experience still dominate the lateral partner talent pool.
This will naturally change in time, however, as younger lawyers, including considerably more women, rise up through the ranks. Law firms will increasingly need to come up with the solutions to meet the needs of this new generation of talent, especially as Germany has one of Europe’s oldest populations. With 2019 predicted to be the year when there are more Germans over 60 than under 30, the competition for this talent will only become more intense, propelling new ways of thinking to attract and retain women in law.
The German legal market is making progress in gender diversity. Younger lawyers, their talent in short supply in an ageing economy, are already influencing change in the workplace. So too will clients drive new ways of thinking as they make their own demands for diversity and flexibility from their legal suppliers.
More law firms present in Germany are prioritising these issues in realisation of a changing world. The number of women coming up the ranks in the German legal industry represents a huge swathe of talent that law firms know they can ill-afford to lose. Improving gender diversity is an increasingly important financial imperative for the future success of the legal industry.
We are confident that in time these early steps will deliver transformative opportunities in law for both men and women in the German legal market. That means more flexibility across all practice groups, more support for leadership training and development, and greater understanding that the greatest talent of the future will come from the most diverse pool. We look forward to working with our law firm clients and candidates to achieve this aim.