American women, you are not alone. According to new research, more women in France are becoming lawyers, just like their American counterparts. But also like their American counterparts, female lawyers in France are not being promoted to partner.
Since at least 2005, the number of women entering the profession is 85% higher than men and are passing the bar at younger ages than men in France. But according to a report of the research findings in The Lawyer newspaper, among the largest independent French firms, the percentage of female partners ranges from just less than 30% down to only 8.7%. Only three women hold managing partner positions in large commercial firms in Paris.
There is a real boys’ club mentality in the French law industry, according to the report. “It’s a tougher business for women in Paris as our market is on the whole more misogynist than other places,” law partner Mark Richardson said. “It’s all well and good to talk about our profession as if it’s in a vacuum, but it’s not.” France may be even more behind when it comes to women starting practices than the U.S., according to Richardson. He points out that many boards in France are still made up of a majority of men and many of them are more used to instructing men than women. “That’s changing, but for the moment it makes things difficult for a female lawyer wanting to develop a practice,” he says. “It’s a generational thing. I get the feeling it’s slower in France than in other places.”
Another big issue for female lawyers, in both the U.S. and France, is work flexibility and remaining on the partner track. According to recent data, in the U.S. the number of female partners at major firms increased slightly, to 19.5% from 19.4% last year, but that small gain was offset by the decline in women associates, who went from 45.5% in 2010 to 45.4% in 2011.
The “female lawyer flight” gains momentum at each level of seniority. Law firms are having trouble figuring out how to maintain women when they hit their prime child-raising years but also women are choosing to leave. Many law firms don’t seem to be as good at retaining female lawyers when they start to have kids. Flexibility in the law profession seems to be extra difficult as billable hours and daily timesheets are a constant reminder that the business of law is all about time. According to a recent study on female lawyers, most of the respondents—almost two-thirds—said they were satisfied with their ability to integrate their work and personal lives and the predictability of their hours. We saw a great example of this last night on the show Parenthood. Julia Braverman-Graham, who had been on the partner track at her prestigious law firm, quit her job because she simply couldn’t keep up with the demands of her work schedule and be the kind of involved mother she wanted to be.
In France one in 10 women leave law and when there are only 30 to 40 women at a law firm, that makes a huge difference. The bâtonnier, or chair, of the Paris Bar, Christiane Féral-Schuhl, agrees that retention is one of the things preventing women reaching the top.
But both the U.S. and France are making some efforts to keep women from leaving. Firms and bar associations are trying to promote diversity at firms in France. De Pardieu Brocas Maffei partner Barbara Levy said, “The first thing to do is to show women that it’s possible to be a partner and have a private and family life. I’ve not sacrificed my own life, I have three children. “It’s a psychological issue and an organizational one.” Having women in leadership positions like Christine Lagarde, a former lawyer, and Levy can only help.
We have argued before that if firms provided flexible hours more women would stay on and work their way up the ladder. Studies show that flexible work almost always brings benefits to the business – increased employee commitment and productivity, reductions in staff turnover and training costs and a greater ability to respond to customer requirements are common feedback. One U.S. study estimated the cost of replacing a second year associate to be $200,000.00. Plus, clients will often not use a firm if there is a lack of diversity. I imagine these kind of benefits would be similar in France.
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