In-house lawyers and gender diversity

Gender equality in senior legal roles

In this article we look at the gap between the number of women qualifying as lawyers and those in senior legal roles and what steps in-house lawyers can take to promote greater equality in their own legal teams and more generally. 

What is gender equality?

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 enabled women in England and Wales to become lawyers. Prior to this, they were barred from the profession.

Since 1990 women have made up the majority of entrants to the legal profession. According to the Law Society, the majority of practising solicitors are now women.

These figures might suggest that the legal profession is diverse and equal. But more analysis reveals a different picture, particularly in the context of the numbers of women in senior legal roles.

The Law Society reports that women comprise around 28% of partners in private practice and that around 25% of employed women solicitors work in-house – a significantly higher proportion than for men. According to Russell Reynolds, in the USA there has been an increase in the number of women recruited to company GC roles – now around 28%.

While these figures show is that in-house law is a popular career choice for women lawyers, there is a gap between the number of women entering the profession and those holding senior positions. In this sense, gender equality appears to have a way to go.

What are the barriers to gender equality in senior legal roles?

The Law Society’s Women in the Law 2018 project reported that the main barriers to career progression were:

  • Unconscious bias
  • Unacceptable work/life balance required to reach senior levels
  • Traditional routes to promotion are male oriented

Each of these covers a range of themes but they include such matters as how career ambition is assessed; the language of value, ambition and success; flexibility in working practices; role models; networking and support.

How can GCs and in-house lawyers promote gender equality?

They can make a difference by:-

  1. Implementing best practice in their own teams and organisations; and
  2. Pushing for change in their external providers.

Best Practice In-House

Many in-house lawyers work in organisations that actively promote and support gender diversity and equality via different initiatives. Indeed, this may have been one of the reasons they were attracted to join the organisation.

In addition to organisation-wide policies, there are steps that the GC and their team can take. Here are three examples:

1. Flexible working

Now something of a buzz phrase, it can mean different things. So, encouraging home working may be important but it will rarely be the whole story. Rather, it’s about working practices (for all) that balance the needs and expectations of the lawyers while also meeting those of the client and maintaining high standards of service.

A system that allows lawyers to occasionally work long days at home rather than in the office may cut out time spent commuting but does it support both high quality outcomes and the welfare of the lawyer(s) carrying out the work?

Achieving this may require some innovation and influence on the part of GC. For example, they may need to ensure that client expectations about accessibility to lawyers are managed but that they are also not unreasonable. They may need to challenge accepted norms around 'presenteeism' and stereotyping, while also using team work and knowledge sharing in ways that support best practice working.

It’s also important that flexible working policies are universally applied and enforced and are not restricted to junior roles, for example.

2. Unconscious bias

Many organisations have unconscious bias training designed to highlight and change the unconscious biases that all employees bring with them. Of course, training is one thing but culture is also important. Establishing cultural change requires championing and support from the top.

This is where the GC and senior lawyers can play an important role by looking at their systems and processes and asking where the unconscious biases sit and what their impact is. Training, tools and methods all have a role to play in increasing awareness and highlighting the barriers to gender equality in key areas, such as in relation to recruitment, appraisal and advancement.

3. Mentoring and sponsorship

Mentoring programmes in organisations are widespread. This reflects the fact that mentoring is seen as a highly effective tool for supporting personal development and effectiveness. Again, buy-in from senior leaders and their involvement is often a key factor in a scheme’s success.

The benefits of mentoring are not restricted to new or less experienced lawyers. Many senior lawyers know the benefit of having their own mentors, as well as mentoring others. Many mentoring schemes also support reverse mentoring as a way to promote a flexible approach to the sharing of skills and experience.

Not all mentoring schemes are company based. There are a number of ‘external’ schemes that have proved popular, such as MOSAIC and The 30% Club.

Sponsorship is distinguished from mentoring in that the sponsor actively takes steps to help advance the career of the person they are sponsoring. So, for example, schemes have been used to match senior women leaders with those women identified as future leaders in order to actively support their development and advancement.

Influencing Law Firms 

One obvious area of influence is in selection. Diversity data can be used as part of the pitch and selection criteria and GCs can also influence the granularity of the data and the weight attached to it. In this way, in-house lawyers can set out their expectations for gender equality. For example, in relation to the number of women in senior roles, the appointment of women relationship partners and the way in which their work is allocated and credited in the law firm.

Terms of engagement might also extend to the ongoing review of diversity data, perhaps in a periodic report or by the establishment of a diversity committee comprising members of the in-house team and one or more external law firms, where ideas and best practice can be exchanged. 

Other practical steps could include establishing joint mentoring programmes with law firms and promoting secondments for women lawyers, particularly into more senior roles.

While in-house lawyers will usually be aware of the 'go to' external lawyers in their sector, it may be that talented lawyers are flying 'under the radar' and would benefit from a higher profile. Here the in-house team can ensure that talented women lawyers are not only appointed to their work but are, for example, invited in to give presentations and training. It may go further, to actively looking at law firms with a higher percentage of women in leadership roles and with more progressive work/life balance initiatives for the benefit of all their employees.[1]

[1] See examples set out in the ABA Presidential Task Force on Gender Equality’s Checklist of Action Items to Advance Gender Diversity among Outside Counsel


Diversity goes beyond women in leadership roles but there appears to be a clear imbalance between the numbers of women qualifying as lawyers and those in leadership positions, both in-house and in law firms. 

While many in-house teams and law firms are working to change this, in-house lawyers have a unique opportunity to effect change. They are in an influential position in their own organisations and in relation to law firms they appoint and partner with. 

Recently GCs for the Law Firm Diversity Network in the States said that its members would direct spending on external counsel to those law firms that demonstrate results in diversity and inclusion in addition to high quality legal services. 

But there are many other ways in which in-house lawyers can take action to influence gender equality in their own teams and in the law firms they engage and work with. And, of course, while the focus here is on women lawyers in senior legal roles and initiatives to improve advancement and representation, many of these initiatives (and others) are relevant to diversity generally and to supporting high standards of career development and well-being for all lawyers regardless of gender.


Women in the Law 2018 – The Law Society

More Gender Diversity Among General Counsels – Cynthia Dow, Lloyd M Johnson Jr. Russell Reynolds, June 2017

The future is female – women lawyers outnumber men in UK as the in-house boom continues – Tom Baker, Legalease June 2018

For the legal profession, progress on gender equality remains ‘painfully slow’ – Catherine Baksi, The Guardian 

More Women Than Ever Before in General Counsel Role at Fortune 500 Cos. – Cynthia Dow, Russell Reynolds Associates, Corporate Counsel, July 2018

Unconscious Bias In The Workplace: You Can’t Afford To Ignore It – Laura Berger, Forbes Coaches Council, March 2018

Checklist of Action Items to Advance Gender Diversity among Outside Counsel – Power of the Purse, ABA Presidential Task Force on Gender Equality and the Commission on Women in the Profession.

GCs threaten to pull their millions from ‘largely male and white’ firms – Monidipa Fouzder, Law Society Gazette, 29 January 2019