As part of our efforts to uncover our First Women Awards Business of the Year winner, we’re looking at Simmons & Simmons, an international law firm with over 1,500 people across 21 offices.
Whilst women comprise almost half of the legal profession, making partner at the same rate as men continues to be a major challenge for the sector.
Across the industry, roughly equal numbers of men and women join firms likes Simmons & Simmons at trainee level. The gender balance at this stage is largely balanced through to the managing associate level up until partnership level, where the fall out in female representation is sharp and steep.
According to 2016 company figures, women made up 48 per cent of legal personnel at Simmons & Simmons, but only 15 per cent of partners. As of May 2017, this has increased to 17 per cent. The organisation is determined to rectify this both internally and across the industry as a whole.
Having committed to improving the gender disparity within the firm, Simmons & Simmons was one of the first signatories to the Law Society’s Diversity and Inclusion Charter, making a public pledge to develop and implement best practice in equality, diversity and inclusion.
Today the firm is paying close attention to its associates, and up and coming talent, to ensure these groups are well equipped to be leaders of the future.
Mahrie Webb, head of the firm’s Bristol office and UK Gender Balance partner, and Joanna Perry, CR & diversity manager, told First Women that the firm has seen a shift in recent years.
“There is real momentum, buy-in and engagement. We’re doing a lot of work to make sure the right initiatives are in place to drive progress,” Perry said.
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The firm’s gender equality efforts come in a number of guises, but central to fulfilling its ambitions for future leaders is mentoring and sponsorship.
Sponsorship is a formal process. Once an associate reaches managing associate level, they’re automatically paired with a partner sponsor.
“There is an emphasis on developing junior female associates and getting them through the pipeline to partnership,” Webb declared.
She added: “We want to take sponsorship a step further to make sure we really encourage our female colleagues and provide access to real work opportunities that will assist with their personal development.”
Crucially Simmons & Simmons has set a target for women to account for 30 per cent of internal managing associates and partner promotions each year. The firm has broadly met this target for the last four years, Perry explained.
Simmons & Simmons is also working closely with external headhunters and recruitment agencies to identify more high-potential female lawyers in the market.
“We invited a number of agencies to the firm for a town hall briefing, where they heard from our managing partner and senior partner about our commitment to gender balance,” Perry went on to say.
Webb added: “We want to ensure that when people are making keys decision about work allocation and promotions, that there is a pause to think about the person we are selecting and why.”
This year the organisation rolled out mandatory inclusive leadership and unconscious bias training for its UK partners and associates across all levels.
However, Webb is also of the mind that improving the workplace culture takes time.
“It’s something that grows over time,” she says. “It can also develop by example. It’s crucial we ensure that partners in key roles are leaders who foster openness and support an inclusive culture that inspires others and allows for personal development right across the firm.”
Employee network groups also play a key part in shaping the firm’s workplace culture, helping to raise the profile of diverse groups, while providing staff with support and guidance.
The firm’s women’s network, The Number One Club, was set up in early 2008 and is open to everyone across the firm – working to retain talent, encourage networking and build relationships with female clients.
Webb concluded: “Having a number of different perspectives also means we will provide better advice to our clients. We also want to reflect our clients and the society we’re operating in. Our clients are diverse and they embrace diversity, so we need to as well.”