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Diversity in Chambers’ rankings: focus on gender

Discover key diversity statistics across the UK legal market as researched by the Chambers UK team for the 2023 Chambers UK Guide.

Published on 12 October 2022
Written by Alex Marsh
Alex Marsh

Gender balance in the UK legal market

There is no legal ranking system that maintains a 50:50 gender balance in every practice area. The question of how to confront this has reached a tipping point in recent years, where it is no longer possible to solely point the finger of blame at the legal market itself.

Some used to argue that legal rankings dominated by men were merely reflecting a profession that was also dominated by men. There is no debate, after all, that men dominated private practice for decades and in many practice areas still do. Today, you can step into any transactional or litigation department of any city firm and you’ll most likely encounter a group of partners who are, by and large, white men in their fifties.

Women in the magic circle

To take one example, the partnership of the corporate departments of the magic circle law firms contain, on average, four men for every woman. Instruct an M&A partner at random for the worst offender in the magic circle, and you have just a 16% of finding yourself being advised by a woman. You don’t have to delve too deeply for these numbers: they’re freely available on each law firm’s website. 

This concerning picture is despite the fact that more women than men have been entering the legal profession since at least 1990 and that today, women slightly outnumber men in law firms throughout the UK.

Clearly, the profession has a lot of work to do, especially within the most elite firms.

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The responsibility of legal market analysts

Legal market analysts like Chambers cannot entirely abdicate themselves of responsibility. Our job is to shine a light on the lawyers making the most impact to clients. The disproportionate representation of men in the sector and the affinity bias they bring to interviews may make it easier for men to find their way under our spotlight. If that’s the case, we need a better spotlight. We can’t just blame the market every time we produce a table that contains lots of men.

Many studies have suggested than men are more likely to be thought of first by anyone providing a recommendation, particularly if the person doing the recommending is a man themselves. This is true whether the source is a peer in private practice, or a client. Hence why in 2020 Chambers instigated 50:50 gender balanced interviews with lawyers. It immediately had an impact on the rankings:

Telling law firms that we want to interview their women hasn’t always been easy. Sadly, many firms still try to insist that we speak to their senior statesman (with the emphasis on man). Chambers prefers to speak to as wide a range of sources as possible, not just in terms of gender, but in terms of ethnicity, disability, neurodiversity, sexual orientation and seniority. By speaking to newer partners and senior associates, we get a better picture of the (relatively) younger end of the market. And indeed, we find that among our rankings reserved for these lawyers, we include more women:

Our policy of balanced interviews complements internal measures within Chambers designed to help unearth talented women. For instance, the research team is trained to prompt interviewees with the names of women who have caught our eye in the past but haven’t yet amassed the evidence required to merit a debut ranking. As Research Director, I personally scrutinise areas in the UK guide where we feel that women are underrepresented. The research managers track the number of women added to the rankings in the sections that they oversee. We also keep an eye on ranked lawyers of all genders on parental leave and freeze the ranking of the primary caregiver for two years, and of the secondary caregiver for one year.

Chambers UK will reach gender balanced rankings

There is no doubt that the women we are adding to the rankings are talented, high performing lawyers who do great work for their clients. If they were not, they would not be added. Legal market analysts like Chambers, though, cannot simply collect feedback and rank the apparently best lawyers without first questioning whether unconscious biases will affect the very feedback being received.

This year, we have added 437 women to the Chambers UK 202 Guide. I am immensely proud of this fact, but at the same time acutely aware of the work we have to do. The research for the next guide begins in January, and the first submissions are due on the 6th December. Please do use those submissions to draw attention to any high-performing women and people of colour in your firm and in others. Through this mutual effort, Chambers will reach gender balanced rankings.


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