November 19, 2020

Key Barriers and Solutions for Women’s Advancement in Law Firm Leadership Identified in New Global Study

Thomson Reuters Institute, Acritas report studied effectiveness of 45 gender equality initiatives

LONDON, 19 November 2020 – A major global study of law firms has identified two key barriers to women’s advancement in law firm leadership as well as effective measures for counteracting those barriers. Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law: Global Report 2020 – Effective Strategies to Improve Gender Diversity at Senior Levels Within Law Firms is a comprehensive study conducted by the Thomson Reuters Institute and Acritas as part of the Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law initiative.

The study examined 45 specific measures aimed at increasing gender diversity at senior levels of 84 law firms across the globe. The research began early this year and incorporates findings gathered since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although women make up more than half (56 percent) of junior associates, they account for less than a quarter (24 percent) of equity partners, according to the study. This gap was found to be widest among firms in Europe, followed by North America and Asia Pacific. This is in spite of the fact that industry data shows gender diversity positively impacts law firm performance. For example, gender-diverse teams and firms achieve greater client spend and above-average financial performance.

The first barrier the study identified was a still-lingering cultural attitude about women’s role at home, as advancement to law firm leadership levels has often been regarded as clashing with perceived cultural norms and expectations that women shoulder a larger share of domestic responsibilities. This trend was found to be most prominent among Asia-Pacific firms, significant among European firms, and far less pronounced among North American firms.

The study noted that flexible working arrangements are the most effective method to boost women’s ability to reach and succeed in senior roles, and that firms’ adoption of work-from-home policies has  greatly accelerated  as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The second major barrier identified was bias. While the report noted it is generally believed to be largely unconscious, bias was cited as a barrier in Europe and North America, but not found to be significant in Asia Pacific. The report said that firms have found several measures to be effective in combatting bias, including removing gender-identifying details from candidates’ curriculum vitae (CVs), using gender-balanced assessment panels for candidates, and mandating gender diversity in pitches and RFPs as well as on firm teams assigned to matters.

Some well-intentioned measures were found to be ineffective or even counter-productive, such as gender-blind work allocation, reverse mentorships and women’s-only networks. Measures that actively ensure equal opportunities and remove the potential for bias were more effective than policies that set women apart from their male peers.

“Advancing gender equality in law firms clearly benefits not just women, but all stakeholders in a firm – including leaders, attorneys and clients; gender-diverse firms  produce more effective legal work and experience better financial performance,” said Elizabeth Beastrom, president of Global Print and global sponsor of the Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law program at Thomson Reuters. “Achieving gender equality requires examining all aspects of a firm: culture, recruitment and promotion; attorney and practice performance; client relations; and much more. But firms that are willing to commit themselves to these goals can realize a multitude of benefits, including more effective and engaged attorneys, and improved client relationships.”

“This is one of the most comprehensive global studies of gender equality and law firm leadership ever conducted,” said Lisa Hart Shepherd, vice president, Research Strategy, Thomson Reuters. “It leverages findings from numerous law firms globally to identify initiatives that are proven to be effective in improving gender equality at the highest levels of firms.”

Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law: Global Report 2020 – Effective Strategies to Improve Gender Diversity at Senior Levels Within Law Firms can be downloaded at

For more information on the Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law, visit

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Jeff McCoy
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