On October 2, Brenda Hale will become the first female President of the Supreme Court of the UK, the first time a woman has served as the most senior judge in the legal system of England and Wales. She takes the position 13 years after she became the first — and still the only — female Law Lord (now Supreme Court Justice) in British history.
Last year, Liz Truss became the first female Lord Chancellor in the UK, responsible for the independence and functioning of the courts. It’s a position that has existed for more than a thousand years; it’s since been reassigned to a man, David Lidlington. The wait for a female Lord Chief Justice goes on, some 800 years after the post was established.
Gender diversity has never been legal’s strong suit, and though signs are encouraging — 67.5% of candidates accepted to undergraduate law courses in the UK last year were female — the top of the profession paints a damning picture. The managing or senior partners at every UK Magic Circle firm are (white) men, and there’s an alarming consistency to the nature of complaints about why that is. The crunch time for a private practice lawyer in terms of career progression and acceleration is the period in their mid-thirties, which tends to coincide with the arrival of young families. For better or for worse, the childcare burden tends to fall upon women; and when that runs up against Big Law’s insatiable thirst for hours, where presenteeism proves worth, it’s women that suffer in their progression to leadership roles.
None of this is new. But what is new is the huge array of transformative technologies that are currently remaking the profession at the top, bottom and middle. As we move to Law 2.0, lawyers don’t need to stay until midnight on a Tuesday cranking out boilerplate contracts; they can automate them. Lawyers don’t need to spend hours shuttling bundles of files about; they can use matter management systems. Lawyers don’t need to wrangle a posse of assistants to file court bundles at a certain time; they can use e-filing. And lawyers don’t have to bury their weekends in document review; they can use artificial intelligence-driven e-due diligence.
None of this is new. But what is new is the huge array of transformative technologies that are currently remaking the profession at the top, bottom and middle.
However, none of this will make any difference if the measure of an aspiring partner’s worth is how much time their jacket is on the chair and their shoes are on the office carpet. The hierarchical nature of law firms make them particularly vulnerable to the habits of their leaders; there are innovative, agile law firms that take advantage of new technologies and fee structures to deliver for their clients, and yet their young lawyers still feel obliged to be there late at night or on the weekend.
Why? Because the senior partner comes in, making his partners feel like they should; the associates follow suit, and then their assistants, and suddenly the whole firm is ignoring a suite of liberating technology because they’re being told that all that really matters is that you’re sitting in a certain place. Law 1.0 needed hours to be billed and hard copy documents to be pushed around, and if you couldn’t be in the office at all times to make that happen, then forget about your leadership aspirations.
What’s the point of Law 2.0 if we act like that’s still the case?
Legal technologies can and will disrupt the legal profession profoundly, at a task-based level. In welcoming Law 2.0, the legal industry must take the opportunity to examine the parts of Law 1.0 that should be jettisoned. It would be ridiculous to assert that in 1,000 years of finding candidates to steward the courts of England and Wales, there just hasn’t been the talent in one-half of the candidate pool. The barriers to the top of the profession will only persist in the future insofar as we’re prepared to constantly rebuild and reaffirm them going forward.
In an environment where we can generate self-executing contracts, have AI proof our documents and triage clients with chatbots, are we really saying that we still need 60 hours a week from every lawyer who wants to progress?
Studies show that gender diversity in corporate leadership positively impacts corporations’ bottom lines. Why on Earth would legal be any different?