Women in Law

Friday 8 March marks ‘International Women’s Day’, a celebration of women’s progress observed universally around the globe. To mark this event, Who’s Who Legal has put together a special feature looking at the increasing number of women reaching the pinnacle of their profession.

Who’s Who Legal nominees are selected through independent recommendations resulting from extensive discussions with private practitioners and corporate sources around the world. Respondents are asked to identify who they deem to be ‘outstanding’ in the field, regardless of their gender, and only those who score most highly are selected. Our findings give an authoritative view of the top echelon of the legal market, and, although male lawyers still form the majority, they indicate the growing presence of female lawyers within it.

A study of our research over the past eight years shows that the number of women considered to be at the height of the profession is steadily increasing. As the graph indicates below, since 2006 the number of female lawyers recognised in our research as ‘exceptional’ in their field of practice has almost doubled from eight per cent to 15.3 per cent.


The USA fields the highest total number of women in our research, although this still only amounts to 15 per cent of the American lawyers listed across our 32 practice areas. This figure matches the percentage of female equity partners in leading US firms; according to the National Law Journalreport ‘The Equity Gap: A special report on women in the partnership’, published in July 2012, women currently account for 15 per cent of equity partners in leading US law firms, but only five of those firms have more than 25 per cent female equity partners.

Ireland has the highest ratio of female to male listings at 26 per cent and both France and Brazil score highly, with 19 per cent. Notably, Brazil, ranked tenth in terms of the total number of lawyers in our research, is seventh by the number of female lawyers listed. England, Australia and Canada also score well in terms of gender balance at the top of their legal bars. By contrast many jurisdictions in Africa and the Middle East have few or no female lawyers recognised by our research as leaders in their profession.

If we take a look at the law firms’ clients, there is a similar imbalance between the representation of men and women at board level. According to a census of the Fortune 500 companies in 2011 published by Catalyst, a not-for-profit organisation focused on gender issues, women hold 16.1 per cent of board seats and less than one-fifth of the companies had over a quarter of female directors. Furthermore, 29 of the companies did not have a woman on their board of directors. Female under-representation is an issue on both sides of the table, it seems.

Analysing our data further, we can see in which practice areas female practitioners are most successful. These include corporate immigration, trademarks and environment law, while the practice areas with the smallest percentage of female lawyers include commercial litigation, construction and M&A.

The chart below shows the practice areas with the highest ratio of women to men, it also identifies the percentage of those women who practise at full-service law firms. Our research suggests there is a generally low proportion of women at full-service firms in the areas with the highest proportion of female lawyers (despite some notable exceptions). This could suggest that it is easier for women to reach the top of their profession in smaller firms and in the sectors in which niche firms predominate.

We then looked at the leading law firms in our research – those fielding the highest number of lawyers – to discover which have the largest percentage of women in relation to their overall listings.

This raises the question of whether ‘big-law’ still presents barriers to women. One perception of large law firms is that they do not always offer a good work/life balance or flexible working. It is a perception many leading law firms are keen to dispel.

Recognising the importance of supporting the careers of women at all levels - recruiting, retaining and promoting – several firms have launched women’s initiatives and networks, including leading firms such as Clifford Chance, Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells, Linklaters, Sidley Austin, Covington & Burling and Vinson & Elkins, to name just a few.

Furthermore, some of the biggest firms are currently considering introducing targets for partnership, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer – the leading firm in our research overall – was reported by The Lawyer in May 2012 to be seriously considering targets for the number of female candidates to be put forward for partnership promotion each year. While those making partner would still be selected on merit, the initiative would increase the number of females in consideration. At the time, the firm had yet to decide whether the target would be useful and what the actual number of female candidates would be. Meanwhile, Hogan Lovells has set a 10-year target to improve its gender balance and is aiming for a 25 per cent female partnership by 2017, increasing to 30 per cent by 2022. Ashurst and Eversheds have also introduced targets for the number of women in high-level positions. But these are targets and not quotas – while targets set a goal to work towards, firms are stopping short of mandatory commitments.

While the quota issue can be divisive, the general consensus among female partners, according to a survey by LexisNexis and the Law Society of England and Wales, is that quotas are unnecessary; women want to be promoted on merit. Some went as far as to label quotas ‘patronising’. In a poll at the end of the International Women in Law Summit 2012 delegates voted overwhelmingly in support of non-mandatory targets, on the premise that they would help women to overcome barriers to promotion and allow them to rise through the profession on their own talent.

At the opposite end of the career ladder there is much to be optimistic about. Statistics published by the Law Society show that in 2009 women made up 62.3 per cent of students accepted on university law degree courses in England and Wales and in the year ending July 2011, 5,441 traineeships were registered with the SRA, of which, 63.5 per cent were from female applicants. It is a similar picture in the US: just under half of law school graduates and 45 per cent of law firm associates are women according to figures from the Center for Women in Government & Civil Society at the State University of New York at Albany. In Latin America, up to half of law school graduates are women, as reported by our sister publication Latin Lawyer.

While women are not being deterred from embarking on a career in law, the number of those reaching the top of the profession is significantly lower. Achieving a work/life balance remains a key concern for many women choosing to juggle their home life with a successful practice.

The relatively recent arrival of women to the profession in such high numbers means that it could take some years for the gender imbalance at partnership level to alter. It is important to stress that we chart only the highest tier of the legal profession, and the number of female practitioners who earn such recognition in the eyes of their peers and clients. As the growing number of women trainees and associates progress in their careers, the number of female lawyers in the pool of candidates for partnership should increase and we expect that they will make the transition into the top tier with increasing frequency. To an extent, the gender imbalance should resolve itself, or at least diminish markedly, over time.


While the struggle for gender equality has taken many forms over the last century, currently one focus is on how talented women can rise to the top – in government, business and the professions – and stay there. The goal is clear, yet views on how it should be achieved are wide-ranging.

Women’s participation in the legal profession is on the rise, as is the number of women breaking through to the top echelon of the profession – albeit at a slower rate than many would like. Moreover, figures showing females entering the profession are highly encouraging as is the fact that the sector has not shied away from the debate. Women’s empowerment has been discussed on a global basis at all levels – from within firms themselves to national governments, to supranational bodies and organisations – and action is starting to be taken to improve female representation among partner level and in law firm management. We will be watching with interest to see how initiatives and targets impact the legal marketplace in the coming years.

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Nominees have been selected based upon comprehensive, independent survey work with both general counsel and private practice lawyers worldwide. Only specialists who have met independent international research criteria are listed.

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W11 1QQ, UK