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Women in law – 2016 is the year it is going to change. Here’s why.

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Law, and lawyers, are on the move. From nomadic lawyering to outsourcing, and from north shoring to the much anticipated death of billable hours, the next 10 years will see huge change – and opportunity – for firms and practitioners. This is a sector in flux, and from flux comes interesting, innovative thinking.

Clearly, those who seize opportunity in 2016 will be reaping the rewards in 2030. What does this mean for women? As a new magazine published by Cambridge Judge Business School and LexisNexis shows, it’s women that are leading the charge. With contributions from all the leading law firms in the UK, Flux confirms that the business case for diversity is unassailable.

Sandra Dawson

Professor Dame Sandra Dawson

Its “manifesto for change” sets out the five main changes that law firms must make now if they are to succeed in the future. At its heart is appreciating that real diversity must move higher up their agenda. As Sandra Dawson, Professor Emeritus of Management Studies at the University of Cambridge, says: “There is a well-founded proposal that increased diversity improves margins, productivity and creativity,” and the 2007 McKinsey Women Matter research showed that companies that have two or women on their board or at senior executive level were empirically more successful.

“The most successful law firms in 2030 will be those who have enthusiastically and systematically ensured they have recruited and promoted women to the very top of their organisations,” says Dawson. “They will be the firms who decide to take a long, hard look at their culture and working practices – and make radical change.”

But there are specific changes to make too and firms need to look at four key strategies: shift their focus from hours onto outcomes; focus on retaining the talented women they have recruited; promote women who can act as role models for those looking to follow in their footsteps; and embrace flexible ways of working.

“We have now reached a stage where women have recognised that this is not where they want to be,” says Janet Legrand, partner at DLA Piper and the first woman to be elected to the firm’s board, as well as the first woman to be in a leadership position in the global firm. “The way that firms are organised was established a long time ago and the status quo works for a large chunk of people. It takes effort to intervene through structural changes to try and change the way things have always been. Firms need to be aware of being more representative of society, not just promoting their own image. A richer range of perspectives makes for better decision-making.”

Linda Jones is head of employment law at Pinsent Masons, and says it’s vital that firms don’t become too insular. “It’s important that we stop making assumptions about what clients want and actually ask them: the answer might be surprising. We shouldn’t assume that they think presence in the office equates to work being done, and we need to start thinking that it might be possible for people to work in a more agile way and for people to be more productive than if they are stuck in front of a desk.”

Positive action is having an effect. At Pinsent Masons, Jones leads Project Sky, a programme established to deliver a better gender balance in the partnership and leadership team, and which has seen a steady increase of female partners in the last two years. “Of 29 new partners [in the latest round of appointments], 30 per cent were female, and that’s the largest proportion to date. It is the result of a sustained campaign to raise this as a business issue. We have many talented women and we need to create an environment where they can progress.”

Sarah Lyons

Sarah Lyons

So it’s the far-sighted firms that are making changes. “There’s no doubt things are improving,” says Sarah Lyons, Client Engagement Manager at Cambridge Judge. “It would be unusual to find a firm without at least one partner working flexibly, and the way that firms measure their value is changing too. But there’s a long way to go. I still find it frustrating that a lot of women could have been successful partners, but a lack of female role models and a male-centric working culture meant this was never to be.”

To address the challenges faced by senior women lawyers, Cambridge Judge developed the Women in Law Leadership Programme. The three-day programme, taught by leading business academics and consulting professionals, addresses issues including strategic talent management, sustaining high performance and leading change.

And Lyons is optimistic: “With growing recognition of the issues that women are facing, along with a genuine desire for things to change more quickly within law firms themselves, I think there is reason to be more hopeful than ever.”