Diversity and the Magic Circle: room at the top?

There are some words that law firms love to use when describing what they do. Deploying a well-thumbed lexicon, albeit with a somewhat limited vocabulary, legal marketing teams invariably turn to: innovation, technology, service, expertise, experience, complexity, team, client, challenges, culture, global, international, cross-border, seamless, bespoke, relationships, tools, solutions. And so on.

Every law uses some of them, and some use all of them. But when it comes to recruitment, one word is king and queen: diversity. For would-be trainees, the word is ubiquitous in the law firm websites they visit. That is not to diminish its importance. Diversity really does matter in a profession where, for more than a decade, roughly 60 per cent of newly qualified lawyers have been women.

The reality of what then happens to them is somewhat different. Britain’s five leading firms, better known as the Magic Circle, have not got there yet – at least in terms of leadership. Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters, and Slaughter and May have always been run by men. And on the subject of diversity, they have all been white.

Several of their competitor firms got there years ago. Lesley MacDonagh did it in 1995: ‘Glass ceiling shattered – the first woman to become managing partner of a top ten City firm’ ran the Law Society Gazette headline. Celebrating her appointment, some legal magazines followed up with suitably stylish cover stories.

Over the following decade, MacDonagh excelled. As managing partner of Lovell White Durrant (the UK predecessor of transatlantic powerhouse Hogan Lovells), she held the position uncontested for three terms: overseeing the firm’s growth, doubling its lawyer headcount to more than 1600, completing several mergers, and taking the total number of offices to 27 worldwide. Others soon followed in her wake, not least employment law guru Janet Gaymer, now Dame Janet, who became senior partner at Simmons & Simmons.

Today, there are several outstanding female partners holding the top jobs in big firms on both sides of the Atlantic: CMS senior partner Penelope Warne and Tricia Hobson, global chair of Norton Rose Fulbright, among them. At New York powerhouse Cravath Swaine & Moore, one of the most prestigious law firms in the world, Faiza J. Saeed is presiding partner. It has become the new normal.

Not so among the Magic Circle. When Allen & Overy announced the eight partners hoping to succeed the most recent retirees (managing partner, Wim Dejonghe and senior partner, David Morley), there was not one woman on either shortlist (of four) for each position.

It was the same story at Linklaters when the Silk Street communications team announced a six-man shortlist to replace Simon Davies as managing partner. Like several of its peers, Linklaters has an initiative (as yet unfulfilled) to get 30% of partners being female. The firm’s senior partner role did, however, see a first when Aedamar Comiskey put in a bid for the top job in 2016 against two male rivals. The popular choice, Charlie Jacobs, beat her to it.

Go back more than a decade to when Sir Anthony Salz stood down as co-senior partner at Freshfields: another all male shortlist of six emerged. The same pattern was repeated at Freshfields in 2015, when only men contested the senior and co-managing partner vacancies, while the only woman partner tipped for the job, Caroline Stroud, decided not to run.

It’s been a similar story too over the years at Clifford Chance, most recently when Matthew Layton replaced David Childs as managing partner. In his exit interview with the FT in November 2013, Childs expressed disappointment that there were too few women partners at Clifford Chance, and none on the management committee. Despite setting a target in 2008 of women forming 30% of the worldwide partnership, it languished at 15.3%. “It’s not good enough,” Childs said. “It’s disappointing.”

So what about a woman in charge of Slaughter and May? Urbane and funny, Chris Saul stepped down in 2016. Did the blue-chip firm choose to break the mould? Steve Cooke was chosen as the man to take the helm. Paul Stacey was then elected as executive partner in May 2017, joining Cooke and David Wittmann, the firm’s practice partner, as part of the firm’s ruling triumvirate.

I decided to ask a respected Slaughters’ partner over dinner whether it might be different next time. “Probably not during my time left at the firm,” came his Delphic response. In pursuing the point further, his logic was not driven by any hint of sexism, more by a perceived lack of desire among his female cohort: although there are very able women partners at the firm, he argued, none of them would want the job.

In chatting to a prominent female partner at A&O, I asked the same questions. There are women who could do it, they just don’t want to, she concurred. Why? Too busy with their work, and no great ambition to be in the spotlight, she suggested, explaining that there had been moves to push one woman onto the shortlist, but she eventually baulked at it.

For the Magic Circle firm that does eventually appoint a woman as managing or senior partner, it will potentially make the biggest contribution to gender diversity among City law firms so far this century. After all, if women can successfully run Europe’s two biggest economies, then why not one of Europe’s biggest law firms?

If diversity really matters to the Magic Circle, then they need to make room at the top.



Dominic Carman

Written by:

Dominic Carman, journalist, writer and legal commentator.

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Author: Dominic Carman