The importance of retaining the very best female talent we have

Sarah Goulbourne Article

When you think of successful businesses and organisations that stand the test of time, they all have a shared focus - to attract and retain. Whether that’s customers who continue to buy their product or service, or talented colleagues who help make the business what it is; if you can get the right people through the door and then do the right things to keep them from walking back out, chances are you will succeed.

Law firms are no different. The most successful lawyers win clients and keep them. The most successful law firms find the best lawyers and provide the right environment for them to stay and flourish. But I believe that the truly great law firms go one step further. They ensure that their people are diverse. Diverse in their knowledge, diverse in their skill sets and, fundamentally, diverse in their origins. Diversity encourages collaboration and pooled knowledge can only be a good thing for our clients. After all, we provide services to a diverse range of clients, so we must mirror this approach.

I don’t think it is unfair to say that diversity of people has not always been a focus for law firms. You may not be surprised to learn that attracting and keeping women in the legal workforce is something I’m incredibly passionate about. Not because I think women make the best lawyers – but because I want the legal profession to adapt to lawyers, and not vice versa. This is also the very reason that we are losing some of the best talent we have.

The facts on women in the legal workforce are widely publicised, and I don’t want to dwell on them for too long, but it makes sense to briefly remind ourselves of them. If we start at the beginning, because that’s often the best place to start anything, more women enter the legal profession than men. The latest data suggests the split is around 60/40 in favour of women. Rising up to fee-earning status, parity has been restored, with the split more or less straight down the middle. Yet, by the time we hit partnership level only 30% are female.

Now, you don’t need a degree in mathematics to understand that this is a seismic shift. It is estimated that over 4 in 10 female lawyers leave the profession within nine years of qualification. Without generalising, I think a good proportion of those that have quit their legal career have done so because they have chosen to focus on their family and children.

Others take maternity leave or extended career breaks.

And why not? Our families and what we do away from the working environment are what give us joy. Let’s be honest, these days more than ever, we work to live. Of course, it is incredibly important for lawyers to look after their work and their clients, but to be truly passionate and motivated at work I would argue that you need to be passionate and motivated about what

you’re working for – your life. I’m unequivocal in my belief that happy lawyers make the best lawyers.

This very reason was a big factor in why I set up gunnercooke with my business partner Darryl Cooke nearly a decade ago. We saw an industry that was wrapped-up in tradition; one that had not really explored an innovative and disruptive approach to change. And one that seemed happy to idly stand by and let women leave our profession. At the time, law firms were very much focused on the old approach to billing by the hour; sadly, many still are. This means that lawyers are rewarded for always being physically present at work.

This, if you’ll forgive me for a moment of exuberant passion, is nonsense and desperately out of date. The world simply does not work this way now and we must adapt. Our profession needs to embrace the flexibility, freedom and choice that you see in so many other industries. We must provide lawyers with greater control over their working lives and ensure we retain the very best talent there is.

At gunnercooke, we have truly embraced the opportunity to become pioneers. We’ve created structured flexibility using technology, to create a successful, profitable and well thought of business. We provide the tools and the environment for lawyers to be successful and clients to remain happy, but we allow our lawyers to practice law without needing to sacrifice their personal life.

Some of the happiest lawyers in our firm, who coincidentally happen to be women with children and amongst the biggest billers we have, enjoy the flexibility and freedom to set their own agenda. We believe this helps drive a significant shift in the longevity of careers and ensures we have access to, and retain, the best female talent. No billing targets, just a genuine focus on encouraging lawyers to think like entrepreneurs and set their own agenda.

Interestingly, to coincide with International Women’s Day, I was recently invited to participate in a seminar at the Law Society which focused on the obstacles women face in their career. As you would expect, there was a good deal of talk on the gender pay gap (something I am proud to say does not exist at gunnercooke), the unconscious bias that stops women rising to the top and the impact of career breaks and maternity leave. I’ve heard all these important topics framed in the conversation echoing change.

Let’s be honest, we’ve known these things for a long time now and, with few exceptions, nothing has been done about it. But I got a sense that we may well be on the cusp of change. People are being proactive, offering positive solutions that can help drive a meaningful step change and understanding that it is in all our gifts to create a legal world that’s fit for purpose in the modern world. And if I can play even a small part in that, encouraging people to do away with tradition and embrace modernity, I will remain what I am right now. A happy, successful, female lawyer.

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