CLARE MCCONNELL<br /><strong>PARTNER, STEPHENSON HARWOOD AND CHAIR, ASSOC OF WOMEN SOLICITORS</strong><br /><br />SURVEYS continue to show that the progress of women lawyers in the profession, and into partnership, has stalled. Even in the 21st century it is still true that women shoulder the majority of the responsibility for childcare or care of other dependants even when they hold professional jobs. For some, the culture of long hours plus the lack of flexible working breeds disillusionment and, combined with the double pressures of home and work commitments, means that they can be forced to choose between the two. <br /><br />In addition to the practical difficulties, a shortage of women role models – the number of female partners has never been above 25 per cent – means junior lawyers have few examples to follow. Is it any wonder that the latest survey, carried out by Legal Week, bears this out and provides dispiriting evidence that female entrants into the profession do not see partnership or other private practice careers as a viable option? In failing to promote the development of talented women lawyers, some City firms continue to miss a trick.<br /><br /><strong>BROAD TALENT BASE</strong><br />The benefits to be gained by increasing diversity across an organisation, by promoting, developing and retaining talent, are widely recognised. For any business to maximise its success in an increasingly competitive global market it needs to develop the skills and experience of a wide and diverse workforce – including women. Law firms are no different. Those few that have embraced flexible working in all its guises alongside mentoring programmes and female networks have seen significant benefits both for women lawyers and for the working environment generally. <br /><br />Successful businesses hire and retain talent and have a broad talent base. Legal businesses have tended to lag behind and suffer because they fail to attract those with the greatest talent and legal acumen. Their loss is their competitors’ gain as women can now choose to work in other sectors which have business structures designed to attract, fully develop and retain talented women who wish to carve out successful careers.<br /><br /><strong>BENEFITS OF DIVERSITY</strong><br />The Law Society has recently reflected these concerns by producing its Diversity and Inclusion Charter, to which forty major law firms and twenty-five procurers of legal services are now signatories. Those firms that have committed to the Charter are confident that it will enable them to broaden their pool of “knowledge, skills, perspectives and talent”. It will provide them with a firm base to provide the best solutions to their clients, to attract new clients and to retain those who, such as BT and Barclays, require their legal service providers to implement diversity programmes. Overall it will provide a clear competitive advantage to those firms who are not just signatories, but who create programmes, career management and development structures and working practices, that can best attract, develop, and retain women solicitors. <br /><br />The benefits of diversity and of developing the careers of women lawyers are even clearer in the context of the present economic climate. Those firms which can attract and retain talent will be the ones which are best able to build strong legal businesses in the short, medium and long term. The promotion of women within City legal practices is something that cannot be dismissed as special pleading; it is, on the contrary, an essential element of any successful legal business both today and in the future.