Gender diversity & the Scottish legal sector

At the end of last year, the Law Society of Scotland published research showing that for the first time 51 per cent of Scotland's 11,000 practising solicitors were female.

While this is clearly good news, it should not mask the more deep-rooted structural and cultural challenges within the legal profession.

Ironically, it is from within the pages of a recent review of the financial sector - an industry much criticised for its domination by an 'old boys network' - where Scottish law firms can discover a blueprint for real and substantive change.

Strong pipeline

On paper the future of the Scottish legal profession looks very bright indeed:

  • Of the solicitors being admitted to the profession this year, 64% were female
  • 64% of solicitors under the age of 40 are female

There is clearly a deep pool of young and ambitious female lawyers in Scotland, backed up by a strong pipeline of talent.


However, when we look at the senior echelons of the profession the picture is less encouraging:

  • Only 40% of solicitors in Scotland over the age of 40 are female(1)
  • Females account for only 25% at partner level and 16% at equity partner level (UK wide) (2)

Systemic problems

It is tempting to believe that the problem of gender diversity will be solved simply through the passage of time, as young female lawyers work their way up the ladder. But this is not borne out by the data. 

According to information taken from across the UK, female lawyers have made up over 50% of new entrants to the profession since 1993 - that's some 23 years ago.2Clearly there are blockages, even breakages in the pipeline.

Equality standards

The Law Society of Scotland should be commended for tackling this issue. In February of last year it published 'A New Framework of Equality and Diversity Standards' aimed at ensuring the legal profession is 'best placed to benefit from the widest possible talent pool and that we are able to keep this talent within the profession'. (3)

Aimed not just at a gender equality but also age, disability, race, religion and all other 'protected characteristics' covered in the Equality Act 2010, the framework sets out 10 equality standards:

These include the naming of an ‘equality lead’ and the regular measuring and reporting of diversity and gender pay gap figures.

While the Law Society of Scotland should be lauded for the work they are doing, more needs to be done by individual law firms to increase female representation throughout all echelons of the profession.

Clearly there is a dramatic fall off midway through the careers of many female lawyers, with firms losing talented individuals from their business.

Breaks not breakdown

The reasons for this are complex and manifold. But one event seems to lie at the heart of it: attracting women back to work following a break to have children.

A long hours’ culture, no onsite crèches, limits on flexible working, negative perceptions of compressed hours and little evidence of an increase in shared paternal leave beyond the male norm of two weeks.

Some of these are deep-rooted societal problems but many could be tackled by a more progressive approach by law firms.

The financial services industry is no paragon of virtue when it comes to gender diversity, but the legal profession would do well to follow the recommendations of a recent government review of that particular industry.

Women in Financial Services

In March of this year the government published the results of a review by Jayne-Anne Gadhia, the CEO of Virgin Money. Titled 'Empowering Productivity: Harnessing the Talents of Women in Financial Services',(4)  it carried three overarching recommendations to increase gender diversity within the UK financial services industry.

The first two – reporting and executive accountability – echo those of the Law Society of Scotland’s Equality Standards. The third, however, goes one step further: arguing that ‘executive bonuses should be explicitly tied to achieving the internal targets which firms have set for themselves’.

This is a recommendation with real teeth. It implies that if the economic arguments for gender diversity have been won, progress or otherwise should be tied explicitly to remuneration. Scottish law firms should follow suit.

Drivers of change

In addition to the measurement, reporting and accountability, law firms need to work harder on identifying and implementing the main drivers of increasing female representation at senior levels. Again, there is much in Jayne-Anne Gadhia's review which could support this.

"There are a range of issues that organisations must address in order to develop a fully inclusive workforce at all levels... we recommend that all organisations explore these - and the other issues identified in this report - in considering how to improve inclusion in their own workplaces."

1. Invest in Supportive People Managers

The review states that the biggest challenge for gender diversity within the financial services industry rests on the quality of people management.

It recommends companies invest in unconscious bias training in order to develop supportive and flexible people managers.

2. Create the Right Culture

The review points to a general consensus among financial services employees that the more senior you become the more it feels like the company owns you, and you need to work long hours in the office in order to progress.

Companies can tackle these perceptions, the report argues, by implementing initiatives such as encouraging teams to have meetings within normal working hours and lessening the need for travel through the use of technology.

3. Provide Technology which Supports Flexible Working

Ghadia stresses the importance of using technology to support flexible working, not creating expectations of round-the-clock availability.

Technology can also be used as a means of companies keeping in touch with employees who are away from the business, allowing a smoother transition back to work.

4. Ensure there are Transparent Pay Structures

This echoes points 8 and 9 of the Equality Standards.

5. Increase the Number of Female Role Models

The review highlights the need for more senior women to ‘hold out the hand of friendship to others’, but also stresses the importance of men acting as positive role models.

It cites the role of Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, encouraging more work-life balance, with more than 4% of high earning men now working part time at the institution.

6. Implement Good Flexible Working Policies

The survey found that there is still an entrenched view that some jobs can only be done on a full-time basis, and working part-time can limit opportunities for promotion.

Crucially, the report argues, the point at which people consider moving to senior management roles with greater pressures often corresponds with the making of important family decisions.

7. Support Working Parents through Shared Parental Leave

Most critically here, the review questions the economic viability of the newly-introduced shared paternity leave reforms.

With Shared Parental Leave pay amounting to only £139.58 per week, it calls on firms to equalise paid benefits for maternity leave. This will help to create a culture at work where both men and women feel able to take a career break.

Current gender pay gaps only exacerbate this situation.

8. Support Working Parents through Return to Work Policies

In particular, Gadhia points to the increase of ‘Returnships’ within financial services. These Returning Professional Internships are commonly aimed at women who have been away from work for two years or more and are looking for a route back to employment.

9. Offer Mentoring Schemes and ‘Active’ Sponsorship

Mentoring is key to boosting confidence and expanding networks, the review states, while sponsorship is vital to obtaining senior roles.

Gadhia gives special mention to UBS Wealth Management and its UK Female Sponsorship and Mentoring programme, where talented senior females are assigned a high-level sponsor. In turn, these senior women are asked to mentor a junior female colleague.

10. Provide Opportunities for Women to Gain Commercial Experience

The report recommends that talented women – and men – should gain experience of business lines and support functions, as very few women emerge with P&L experience, succeeding instead in support roles such as legal, audit, HR or communications.

Leading change

The Law Society of Scotland’s equality standards provide a strong platform on which to build progressive workplace practices aimed at increasing gender diversity. But law firms – and individuals within them – need to be more proactive in implementing effective changes.

Jayne-Anne Gadhia's review and the recommendations it lists are a blueprint not just for financial services but also for the professional services industry – and indeed business in general. But its focus is on the retention and development of female talent. The Scottish legal sector also needs to concentrate on attracting women back into the profession.

Firms which develop a progressive and modern employer brand, one which emphasises flexible working, an enlightened culture and true work-life balance, will steal a march on their competitors by drawing precious skills and experience back into their businesses.

When it comes to the critical issue of creating a fair and just society, the Scottish legal sector needs to be at the forefront of meaningful change.


1. Dec 2015, Law Society of Scotland.

2. 2014 Gender in the Law Survey, Chambers Student.

3. Page 7, ‘Diversity in the Profession’, The Law Society (June 2015).

4. ‘Empowering Productivity: Harnessing the Talents of Women in Financ...

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