In this article, Katherine Murray, HR Consultant at Gallagher Benefit Services UK, looks at how law firms need to take the long view when it comes to their HR plans in the wake of the 2018 gender pay gap reporting requirement.
Gender pay time to get smater

It is fair to say that this year’s inaugural gender pay gap reporting created noise across all industry sectors, not just the legal profession – and there is every chance 2019 will not be much different. In some cases, the gap might even be wider. Most companies knew they could not magic change for the better - but this has never been about overnight transformation. It’s about identifying the problem, articulating the solution, then taking a long-term view.

If you read nothing else, read this

  • Research shows it takes 2-3 years1 to see the impact of HR initiatives in an organisation and, hence, an impact on gender pay metrics. So, firms need to take a long-term view with regards to gender pay gap reporting, and in discussions with senior management.
  • The legal profession – as with other industry sectors – needs to look at the ways and means to ensure a more equal mixed cohort at senior management level.
  • This involves rethinking policies and practices to ensure equality of opportunity for women.
  • It also involves rethinking organisational culture in the legal sector: tearing up the traditional rule-book founded in the long-hours and hierarchical environment, and replacing it with a much more flexible approach that supports work-life balance.

Now is the time – a whole four months before the next reporting deadline – to think about getting your firm’s metrics sorted and coming up with a watertight supporting narrative that is capable of walking the talk. Importantly, it needs to build on the story the firm already communicated to employees and stakeholders earlier this year, and ultimately answering the question of how the firm will demonstrate commitment to gender pay goals. Plus, if there is a widening of the pay gap, how is the firm going to explain this?

Mixed cohorts, not quotients

The problem in the legal profession is actually not to do with female representation in the workforce. Indeed women make up 48% of all lawyers in law firms and 47% of the UK workforce2. Seniority, however, introduces the disparity, with women making up 59% of non-partner solicitors and the larger law firms (with 50 plus partners), showing women make up 29% of partners.

“The challenge is to ensure a more equal mixed cohort at a senior level, without resorting to quotients: the latter simply isn’t in the spirit of equality.”

This will involve more aggressive talent and succession management. Firms will need a fair process for determining early on which individuals (men and women) they are going to consider for key management roles. Then, the firm will need to set out how they plan to grow the capabilities of these individuals, facilitating opportunities for lateral moves with a view to achieving a more equal state over time.

50/50 male/female representation at the top is not necessarily the goal here. Instead, it’s about upping the ante to help grow opportunities for the right females.

Rethink policies & practices

It will undoubtedly necessitate changes to HR policies and practices to ensure that talent and succession planning is done in a way that appeals to women as well as men.

Law firms will need to look at how they leverage their internal networks in order to grow the knowledge base of female employees and ensure ‘stickiness’ within the organisation. This might involve creating an informal set of networking opportunities for women, focused on areas such as new business, and getting to know people and opportunities in other departments.

As part of this, consider establishing mentoring groups to help women build their personal brand and presence across the business, paving the way for potential cross-departmental transfers in the future.

Rethink organisational culture

This is about systematic change at a top line level. The long hours and hierarchical culture which tend to be broadly typical of the legal profession has to be addressed, with a move more towards working through a series of key steps in order to get to partner (as opposed to a process partly based on being ‘seen’ and ‘heard’).

Smarter organisations are taking this as an opportunity to rethink organisational culture, in terms of career frameworks and pathways but also in terms of driving a more flexible working environment. The goal is to use these changes as a segue into transforming the traditional senior management view of the career process.

The big challenge for the legal profession is to continue to meet client needs whilst providing greater flexibility to the workforce.

Think long-term

The reality is that any HR initiatives will take at least 2-3 years to impact gender pay metrics and deliver meaningful results. A long-term view is essential, both in gender pay gap reporting and in discussions with senior management.

Accept that your firm is not necessarily going to shift the dial this year or next, but that foundations have been laid for the future. Only then will the firm be in a position in future to say with confidence that it helped increase senior management capabilities and taken significant strides to close the gender pay gap.


  1. Reward strategy: Ten common mistakes, Institute for Employment Studies (2000)
  2. How diverse are law firms? Solicitors Regulation Authority (Aug 2017)