We are here to stay - Gender diversity in the legal profession

A look into the future of the Legal Profession: The first international Women in Law Conference has just taken place in Vienna with great success - supported by politics and business - and will be continued next year. Topics such as the under-representation of female lawyers in the committees of professional associations and chambers and the gender pay gap in the legal profession were discussed with international experts - of whom I was the representative for Germany. Other topics such as the compatibility of work and family life and the work-life balance were put on the agenda especially in view of the dramatic increase in mental illness, occupational disability, burnout and suicide rates among colleagues and also attracted young lawyers / millennial as well as male colleagues.

The professional, patriarchal structures in the legal profession worldwide prevent the legal industry from finally dealing successfully with the current challenges and future necessary developments.

The German Lawyers' Association has just experienced this painfully: for years now, the professional association has only been of interest to professionals in small and medium-sized law firms and has suffered a significant loss of members (like I explained in my book "Law Firm Development", 2018). In particular it does not create it to dedicate itself successfully and convincingly to the topics of the young lawyers and female lawyers. A few days ago, President Schellenberg had to resign surprisingly; the gaps are too big, the trust of the legal profession to be able to work out one's own future (or a sustainable model for the legal profession) with this president is too low. Two female vice-presidents are in discussion for their successor: and a female president for the German Lawyers' Association would be a novelty. 

What would change?

As the studies presented at Women in Law show, women leaders in particular tend to play down gender issues and cement existing structures in their own interests. As Prof. Margaret Thornton explained, in particular the selection of his peers on the basis of social determination and thus the reproduction of homogeneous groups with a one-dimensional decision-making horizon - also independent of gender - is one of the most fatal errors of human selection processes. On the other hand, it has also been proven that talent and intellect are distributed almost equally between both sexes - not involving women and women lawyers in these decision-making bodies and management functions means first and foremost having less competent men at the top.

So: the JUVE-Azur Awards next week will be presented to a German law firm, among other things, not any more for diversity. The “Maria Otto Prize”, which has been awarded three times since 2010 by the German Bar Association, especially honours female lawyers who have rendered outstanding services to the equality of women in the legal profession. The same goes for the promotion prize in the executive assessment for female law students and young lawyers, Panda University Law, which aims to support young female executives and future partners in the legal sector from the beginning of their careers.

Is this really still necessary today? Is gender diversity and equity still a topic of discussion in the legal professions? Has equality not been established here for a long time?

After all, for almost a hundred years now, women have been able to become lawyers just like men in Germany. Some examples of male resistants to female lawyers 100 years ago:

  • Being a lawyer makes females barren.
  • Due to their physical-genetic disposition, women are not in a position to carry out the analytical thinking of a lawyer.
  • Women attorneys in the courtroom would dissuade colleagues from their concentrated important work. 

For some years now, German universities have been producing almost as many lawyers as women lawyers. According to the Federal Statistical Office, more than half of law students were female in 2017: Around 56 percent, i.e. 64,833 out of a total of 116,217 law students, the number of female lawyers in Germany has also been rising steadily for years. While in 1970, according to statistics from the Federal Bar Association (BRAK), only 4.5 percent of the 23,000 lawyers were women, 48 years later the picture has changed dramatically. By 2018 the BRAK had 164,656 lawyers in Germany, 57,251 of whom were women – more than a third. Not only has the number of lawyers increased significantly since 1970, the beginning of the BRAK survey, but the proportion of women has also grown disproportionately.

And of the 165,000 lawyers admitted to the bar in Germany, 35% are now women. A pleasing number and definitely in line with the trend if we compare the figures with those of our neighbouring countries. The future study by the German Bar Association in 2013 predicts that these proportions will be equalised within the next ten years.

Gender diversity in the legal sector is unlikely to conflict with anything, one might think. So why are special efforts in this area and their awarding at all necessary?

In management and decision-making positions, in representative functions and offices, as well as at industry events and conferences, female lawyers still play hardly any role. Even today, legal symposia are still held, the executive committee of which consists exclusively of men. No wonder: The proportion of female lawyers in management positions and at partner level is still below 10 % throughout Germany, and even falling. The largest German law firms appointed only 6 women out of 50 new partners in 2019. They had quite ambitious goals: many wanted to achieve a share of women of between 25-30%. What is remarkable here is that these figures have actually been achieved by the global players – but in Germany they were far behind. And this despite the fact that the criteria are identical (worldwide and also for men and women) and there is no shortage of ambitious female lawyers who meet the “full war paint” requirements with all the prerequisites.

It was not until 2014 that the Working Group of Women Lawyers of the German Bar Association (DAV) was able to achieve that at least a small percentage of the events of the German Bar Association (Deutscher Anwaltverein) and the German Bar Academy (Deutsche Anwaltsa-kademie) were deliberately staffed by female lecturers, after having been a purely male domain for years. The occasion was probably also the DAV forum “Women Leaders Today and Tomorrow”, which took place for the first time in Berlin and made clear the last position of German female lawyers in an international comparison.

Unfortunately, gender diversity did not yet seem to be an issue for the legal sector in Germany.

Other sectors, on the other hand, have long since recognised this: In special cases, the police use policewomen specifically to de-escalate. The fact that mixed teams of decision-makers are acting more innovatively and more successfully in economic terms is particularly well received by the business community. Criteria by which law firms must also be measured.

And indeed, even clients from the legal sector are already demanding it: Corporate legal departments consciously decide to commission only external legal advisors with equally mixed teams. And in certain particularly sensitive areas of law such as family law, it is anything but irrelevant to the individual client whether he or she is represented by a lawyer.

If a law firm wants to be successful and fit for the future, it will not be able to ignore the issues of gender diversity and equality.

A point that should not be ignored either: Universities already train 50% of female law students, a not inconsiderable state investment, as each law student costs the state 4,560 euros a year. Which branch of industry can still afford to do without highly qualified employees who would also contribute the success factor of diversification?

So what would happen if gender diversity in the legal profession were no longer just closed off, but consciously applied?

It is a fact that women and men, due to their biological and physiological dispositions, typically absorb and process information in different quantities and qualities. This has become flesh and blood because of the millennia-old imprint on typical gender roles. Women tend to have a panoramic view, are concerned about the welfare of the general public and focus their approach on negotiation and agreement. Men, on the other hand, tend to act with a tunnel vision in an emergency. This makes them (apparently) faster, but they actually only decide in two dimensions between attack and running away. Both of these factors severely restrict our options for action, at least when we communicate typically male or typically female. Typical” is nothing other than what we once defined as female and male with regard to gender roles. Communication itself is neutral.

What does this mean for lawyers? The legal profession requires a high level of communication skills, but this is not explicitly promoted either in legal training or when starting a career. The same applies to soft skills such as emotional intelligence, intellectual flexibility and cultural awareness. To ignore the “typically female gaze” and “typically female” communication patterns and characteristics would be to act with only half the force.

Some of the top 10 law firms have already recognised this and promote it with targeted programmes such as Freshfields, Bruckhaus and Deringer. If the legal sector continues to close its ranks to the topic of gender diversity, it is to be feared that it will ignore social reality and lose confidence in its professional competence.

Today, women already make up half of the legal profession and thus represent a balanced relationship within the profession that is oriented towards social reality. As the last 100 years have shown, women in the legal profession have managed to establish themselves in the industry despite all resistance. And they have come to stay.

Like I started and closed in my speech at the Women in Law, Vienna, telling "my personal story of becoming a lawyer" last weekend: Anything is possible!

This article contains parts of my contribution for Women in Law, Vienna.

More about me and my work at www.geertje-tutschka.com and www.consultingforlegals.com.