Speech by Sascha Grimm, Chair of WILL

WILL Launch Event, 17 October 2014

 

 

My name is Sascha Grimm and as the WILL Committee Chair, I would like to welcome you all here tonight and thank you for coming. I would also like to echo Suzanne’s thanks to our speakers, sponsors and supporters.

 

I will not take up too much of your time this evening as there is wine waiting next door, but I would like to speak briefly about why we have set WILL up and what we would like to achieve.

 

To give you some background - the idea for setting up a new network came about at the end of last year. I was trying to find a women’s legal network to join, but found that the majority were aimed at more senior women, or women lawyers at all levels nationwide. I could not find any networks that were expressly focussed on associate-level female solicitors like me who were working in the London market.

 

I emailed some friends at other firms and companies to ask if anyone would be interested in either setting up a network or joining one if it were set up.  A few of us met earlier this year to discuss what we would like to gain out of a network and what we thought would benefit other associate-level women lawyers in London. We decided to put things into motion. The result is Women In Law London – or WILL for short – a network aimed at associate-level women in-house and in private practice across London. We encapsulated our aims in our mission statement to “engage and promote the next generation of women leaders in law”.

 

The committee members are Suzanne Szczetnikowicz from Shearman & Sterling, Sophie Bragg from Mishcon de Reya, Fatema Orjela from Kirkland & Ellis, and Ellen Hughes-Jones from Edwards Wildman, which is also my firm. However, it is important to the WILL Committee that the network is structurally independent of our firms, or indeed any firm or company or organisation. We want WILL to be very much a grassroots network “by associates for associates”. And when I say “associates”, I mean associate-level women in both private practice and in-house. We want WILL to be governed solely by, and to be a sounding board for, what is in the best interests of its members.

 

Since launching online in July this year, the response has been phenomenal. We now have over 1,200 members in private practice and in-house and WILL continues to grow. As you may be aware, we are also asking more senior women to sign up as “Champions” to provide the benefit of their experience and to allow members to network upwards. We also think that in order to bring about change to our profession, it is crucial that we have the support of people in management who are responsible for making decisions and setting policies. Again, we have had a great response from partners, senior counsel and General Counsel.

 

So why do we think WILL is necessary (aside from the fact that 1200 women have already signed up in a matter of months)? It is no secret that the retention rate of women in the legal profession, and specifically in law firms at the senior levels, is, frankly, terrible. To give you some statistics:

 

·         According to research published by the Lawyer magazine in September 2013, just 17.6% of partners were women in UK. More disheartening is the fact that this was a rise from 16% in 2006. The 13% of women as equity partners had not changed at all. This means that despite the various diversity initiatives in firms and the heightened awareness of retention rates, in the last seven years there has been no meaningful progress at the upper levels.

 

·         Equally shocking is the report published by the Law Society this year that shows that the gender pay gap for solicitors has now increased. Male solicitors earn on average 30% more than their female counterparts in private practice and 27.8% in-house.

 

·         However, the barriers are not just external: at the beginning of the year Eversheds released research it had undertaken in relation to lawyers between 23 and 40 around the world and found that in the earlier stages of their careers, 77% male respondents wanted to become partner against 57% women.

 

·         Women are not progressing at all levels in the profession. Last week, the Council of Europe released a report on women in the judiciary, which put England and Wales at 3rd from the bottom across the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, above only Azerbaijan and Armenia, with 25% female judges.

 

What makes these figures particularly hard to swallow is that women have accounted for over half of all entrants into the legal profession for the past twenty years (source: Law Society report of April 2014). Whilst many industries can point to the fact they are unable to attract women in the first place, the legal profession simply cannot use this excuse – the truth is that not enough is being done to capture women at those crucial years before partnership or senior management and to keep them. Somewhere between starting their careers and becoming partner or General Counsel, women are making the decision that they do not wish to, or simply cannot, reach those levels. Of course, not everyone wants to be a partner or General Counsel – or can be – however, the poor retention rate cannot just be ascribed to natural attrition. For firms and companies, this loss of talent means that, to an extent, they must be filling those senior positions with people they did not at the outset consider to be the brightest and the best. It is financially harmful too - They are also losing talented individuals that they have invested significant sums of money in recruiting and training.

 

This makes the fact that there was not until this point a network aimed at the very demographic that is walking away from the profession all the more surprising – and in our eyes makes the need for it even greater.

 

Our goal is for WILL to fulfil a number of roles. At its most fundamental level, we would like it to be a forum where women across private practice and in-house can network with each other and more senior women, sharing ideas and experiences, and building contacts. We see the involvement and attendance at events of the Champions as crucial in this regard and hope to see organic mentoring/sponsorship relationships develop over time. It won’t have escaped your notice that there are no men here this evening. We are planning on holding mixed events too – as just as important as giving women the opportunity to network with each other is to involve men in the discussions. They are after all the other side of the coin.

 

As well as regular networking events, we will be organising talks, targeted training, and panel discussions, as well as building up our website – in particular the online forum, which we hope will become a space for the exchange of ideas and networking.

 

However, central to our initiative is the belief that we can reverse the current trend. Often discussion can lead to a lot of handwringing and no action – whilst it is important to explore the problems in detail, we want to be part of the solution. Whilst we do not currently have all of the answers, we think that by working together we can understand the diverse range of issues at play and find potential solutions. We have the unique opportunity to pool the experiences and thoughts of over 1,200 women (mostly associate-level) at around 350 different law firms and companies across London to find out why women are leaving and also what makes them (or would make them) stay.

 

We will do this informally through the WILL events and forum. However, we are also planning more direct methods of listening to members: in January 2015, we will be carrying out an anonymous online survey which will give you the opportunity to tell us what you would like from WILL, as well as what factors are influencing your decisions about your careers, and what positive and negative experiences you have had as lawyers. We hope you will take part in this process as we would like the collated data to give a true picture of the range of factors directly influencing retention rates. This sort of survey has never been done before – it is purely for the people who have a direct interest in the outcome.

 

Once we have these findings, we want to engage with management to encourage them to take the necessary steps to bring about change in the short and longer term. With the support of the Champions, we hope that we can secure the cooperation of the profession on a wider level.

 

So, in summary, we hope that WILL can operate on two levels: first, by providing support for women on an individual basis through building up their networks, and second: at the institutional level by driving change in the firms and companies themselves. It is ambitious, but something has to change – and it feels like now there is the goodwill and momentum to make things happen. By the time we all get to leadership (if we want to), I hope we represent more than 17% of the partnerships and senior management. Many if not all of you are here because you want change – and there are another 1000 members and Champions that are not here tonight that agree.

 

We think there is a now real opportunity not only to build a network, but to transform the face of the legal profession. As a Committee and with your assistance, we believe that we have the combined strength to effect those transformations. Thank you.