Following International Women’s Day last Tuesday, 8 March 2011, the Southbank Centre hosted a “Women of the World” festival to celebrate the achievement of women across the arts, media, politics and business on 11, 12 and 13 March 2011.   

As part of this, a “Women in Law” debate took place on Saturday afternoon.  Led by Denise Jagger, a partner at law firm Eversheds, the panel included Lucy Scott-Moncrieff (deputy vice president of the Law Society), Dame Janet Gaymer (previously senior partner of City law firm Simmons & Simmons), Ingrid Simler QC (current chair of the Bar Council’s Equality and Diversity committee), Kim Hollis QC (incoming chair of the Bar Council’s Equality and Diversity committee) and Sandie Okoro (General Counsel at Baring Asset Management Limited).

The panel considered the difficulty women have progressing beyond certain levels in the legal profession.  In advance of the debate, Denise Jagger commented that “we have much to celebrate as a profession with over 50% of the intake into law firms and the Bar being women“, stating that the panel would be debating “what concerted action can be taken to stem the unacceptable attrition rate” and saying that “without such action we will continue to see talented female lawyers failing to achieve their full potential“.

At the debate, the panel reminded its audience that only 15% of High Court judges are women, and that Lady Hale is the only female Supreme Court justice.  In an interview for the UKSC blog last year, Lady Hale suggests that the barrier to more women progressing further in the judiciary is “still very much still within the legal profession itself“, and that “one important thing which would assist with the improved representation of women is for people to realise that merit and diversity are not mutually exclusive criteria…it is important to see that a more diverse bench is actually a better bench“.

However, a number of the panelists at the Women in Law debate consider that the only way to address the inequalities that exist is by using quotas.  Ingrid Simler QC called the current situation a “disgrace“, saying that “if [using quotas] means women only getting jobs because they are women then so be it – men have been getting jobs because they are men for years“. 

The lack of women at highest levels of City law firms was also noted, with Sandie Okoro noting that “many good female lawyers are leaving law firms before achieving partnership and heading for industry, where diversity has progressed further“.  This is supported by the findings of The Lawyer Diversity Report 2010 that was published in November 2010.  This report found that of the 9,915 partners in the top 100 firms in the UK, only 2,163 (or 21.8%) are women.  A closer look at the top 10 law firms shows a dimmer picture, with only one out of 10 having over 20% of female partners.  In addition, the findings of report show there has been only a very small increase in the percentage of women partners at City law firms in the past two years (in 2008, the average was 20%) . 

In her interview with the UKSC blog, Lady Hale suggested that a way for the judiciary to become more diverse is for more solicitors to become judges.  However, this is unlikely to be a realistic solution until more women are also reaching higher positions in law firms, which at the moment does not seem to be happening.

And so the question remains: how do women get through the glass ceiling in the legal profession?  Whether it will take the drastic steps advocated by Ingrid Simler QC remains to be seen.