Inside the legal industry: Leaders, power and the rules of the game!

We all read regularly that there are not enough women in partnership in law firms. We know that 60% of law graduates are women, over 50% of senior associates are women but only 28.5% of partners in Australia are women, while in the UK, only 19% of equity partners are women. 

McKinsey reports that ‘while all law firms call gender diversity a very important or top priority for their firm only 36% of women believe that gender diversity is a priority for their firm compared with 62% of men”. This is why so many women are leaving to pursue other options and not staying to become a partner. 

Having worked as HR in law firms for the majority of my career I have always wanted to find a way to resolve the gender imbalance and see not only more women in partnership but more flexibility for all in obtaining and maintaining senior roles. I regularly heard partners discussing that clients seemed to be able to offer more gender balance and flexibility but they didn’t think they could as they didn’t’ know where to start especially with the financial structure of the firm (lockstep). 

However, what has become clear to me since leaving the legal industry and reflecting on my career and the many discussions I have had with women over the years, is that significant change in gender diversity is not something HR or Heads of Diversity can influence. It has to come from the partners and the senior partners. They need to have an honest discussion about gender issues and design the action plan themselves to create buy in. Most law firms are dominated and designed by male partnerships and they don’t see their cultures as ‘masculine’, they see them as meritocratic. Law firms need to get partners who are familiar with gender differences and understand how they link to the systematic issues creating the current imbalances. 

Gender balance and equality is about leadership, culture and strategy, not about women, parenting and bias. It’s about leaders and power and the rules of the game. The rules need to change. If anyone understands best about changing the policy and rules it is lawyers!

We need a fresh look at the partner track and not just stick to lock step and forced retirement that occurs in the majority of firms. 

How do we begin the journey to equality in law firms?


In order for change to become a reality, there needs to be some extremely honest conversations about gender differences and considering the alternatives to the one size fits all model. Partnership currently affects most people’s kids, marriages and sanity levels, we need to consider making it earlier or later. Can we better leverage the older partners by having them work flexibly rather than retiring so there is still room for more partners but we are not forcing the issue at potentially the wrong time? We need to challenge our thinking on the partnership structure and look to other organisations that make flexibility and gender equity work for all in senior roles. To start these conversations we need senior partners to be willing to consider alternatives.  


We can begin to dismantle gender imbalances in a workplace through the development of your people. Through Cultivates sponsorship program, partners and people managers are able to develop their skills as leaders and impart their wisdom and experience into their junior female colleagues, giving them the opportunity to advance their career through experience and advocacy that they otherwise would not receive.

A formal sponsorship program can both educate the senior partners in the challenges that women face through recognising their hard work and abilities and also develop the senior partners leadership legacy while sharing their expertise and networks of influence with the sponsee. 

Flexibility to adapt

To embed a culture of sponsorship and equality into an organisation’s DNA, outside help is often required in order to adapt.

By working with Cultivates experienced consulting team, it is possible to leverage sponsorship, reduce gender imbalance, create a more diverse executive team and evolve to be a forward-thinking workplace that the best talent seeks out. 

Why is sponsorship so effective in achieving gender equality? 

Having looked to many options over the years to improve retention of women in law, sponsorship stood out as the best way to support emerging female leaders and improve their retention. A sponsor acts as an active champion in the workplace. For ambitious professionals, having a sponsor can facilitate a faster progression up the corporate ladder and remove barriers to promotions and enables businesses to increase retention and productivity. I had seen informal sponsorship of men throughout the years but it was harder for women as they didn’t seem to get the same opportunity to make contacts further up the line. Having experienced sponsorship myself throughout my career, I know that I would not have had the success I have had without these very influential sponsors.  

This is what law firms need to start to reduce their gender imbalances and make lasting change for all! 

Want to change the rules of the game through sponsorship?