In-house initiatives for gender parity

Sophie CameronThursday 22 February 2024

Many companies are developing diversity-focused sponsorship and mentorship programmes, and in some cases, encouraging senior leaders to become male champions for change, to break down barriers to diversity, equity and inclusion. In-House Perspective explores what’s being done to continue the push towards gender parity within the profession.

Goal number five of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. However, the UN states that despite the progress made over the last few decades, the world isn’t on track to achieve gender equality by 2030. The UN’s research finds that, on average, women in the labour market still earn 23 per cent less than men globally and at the current pace of progress, it’ll take 140 years for women to be represented equally in positions of power and leadership in the workplace. The UN believes that to properly address the systemic barriers to gender equality, the goal must be a key focus of institutions and national government policies.

In the business world, the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) movement has gained further momentum within organisations over the past few years, with companies expected to be more transparent and accountable to their stakeholders than ever before. As a result, many organisations have adopted DEI policies at all levels of their operations and endeavour to embed these practices and values within the company’s culture in order to break down the remaining systemic barriers to entry and progression within the profession.

Mentoring and sponsorship

A challenge specific to in-house legal divisions is the smaller size of such teams, which means that senior positions may not become available as often as elsewhere in the profession – potentially making it more difficult to progress. However, mentorship and sponsorship programmes enable employees to be recognised by the company and to pursue career development goals aside from whether a more senior position is available.

Barbara Levi, Group General Counsel at multinational investment bank and financial services company UBS, who’s based in Switzerland, explains that in her leadership team, there’s a strong commitment to developing diverse talent. Each member of the team takes on a mentoring or sponsorship role for another member of staff. ‘We have several sponsor and mentorship programmes to support our colleagues from underrepresented groups. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that companies need to invest strategically in retaining the employees they recruit and train,’ she says.

Michael Coates, Co-Vice Chair of the IBA Corporate Governance and Activism Subcommittee and General Counsel at Shell, in the Netherlands, agrees that mentoring is an essential part of a balanced and effective DEI programme. ‘Mentoring programmes help manage the equitable access to information on how careers can be progressed within an organisation. When coupled with accountability of the mentors and applied consistently across the talent pool, they can have a significant impact on positively improving DEI in the organisation,’ he says.

In 2022-2023, the IBA Women Lawyers’ Committee published a set of toolkits and guidance documents aimed at levelling the playing field in the legal profession and inspiring leaders to work to achieve gender equity. Specifically, they’ve released toolkits for sponsorship programmes and mentorship, and a briefing note on the creation of the Male Champions for Change Ambassador Corps, a grouping that has been established within the Committee. Lise Lotte Hjerrild, Member of the Women Lawyers’ Committee Advisory Board, a partner at Horten in Copenhagen and the Chair of the Committee during the development of these documents, is pleased that the toolkits have been well received by the profession. ‘The mentoring guidance had been discussed for years by the Committee and then, during a webinar in late 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, we decided to create a toolkit for mentorship, as no one had the real recipe for building such a programme’.

The mentorship toolkit was launched at the IBA Women Lawyers’ Conference in Copenhagen in September 2022. ‘During that very same conference, one of the speakers mentioned that mentorship will get you nowhere without sponsorship. And so, we developed a toolkit for […] sponsorship programmes, which was a collaborative effort with a number of law firms,’ adds Hjerrild. The sponsorship toolkit was launched a year later at the IBA Annual Conference in Paris in November 2023.

“During a conference, one of the speakers mentioned that mentorship will get you nowhere without sponsorship. And so, we developed a toolkit for sponsorship programmes

Lise Lotte Hjerrild
Member, Women Lawyers’ Committee Advisory Board

Mentorship focuses on transferring knowledge and cultural awareness from a more senior mentor to a less-experienced mentee and, particularly when it comes to diversity, there’s also the opportunity for reverse mentorship, whereby the more junior employee mentors their more senior colleague in order to promote diversity and drive cultural change within the organisation. Levi explains that reverse mentoring ‘is an effective way to promote diversity and inclusion, flipping the traditional mentoring model. This type of mentoring is a powerful tool to bridge the gap between employees from different backgrounds and generations.’

The IBA Women Lawyers’ Committee mentorship toolkit offers advice on getting started, which includes the importance of clearly defining the company’s mentorship programme; how to design a programme structure that works for the organisation; guidance on choosing mentors and selecting mentees; recommendations for mentors and mentees; as well as suggested subject matter to be covered by a mentoring programme, what the sessions might look like and a process for assessing the results.

Sponsorship programmes within the legal profession, meanwhile, pair senior lawyers in leadership positions with promising junior colleagues and aim to map out a clear path to promotion for the latter to achieve equity partnership or other senior positions. This type of programme focuses on the sponsor’s influence and reputation to garner opportunities for the sponsoree with the organisation’s key clients and other senior leaders within it.

The IBA Women Lawyers’ Committee toolkit for sponsorship programmes is tailored to law firms but is equally applicable to the work of in-house counsel. The toolkit provides guidance on the importance of setting out the expectations of the various parties to the programme; the value of institutional workshops and activities for sponsoree development; the need to set a regular timetable of meetings; the importance of counselling; the process for pairing sponsors and sponsorees; the need for accountability; and how such programmes should be evaluated.

Erika Levin, North American Regional Forum Liaison Officer on the IBA Women Lawyers’ Committee and a partner at Fox Rothchild, New York, says that ‘as lawyers, we need to embrace our roles as advocates and change makers. DEI initiatives are not only the right thing to do, but they also yield tremendously positive returns for organisations. As a business, the return on investment is often measured financially. There are many studies out there that demonstrate the financial benefits of DEI initiatives.’

“Diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are not only the right thing to do, but they also yield tremendously positive returns for organisations

Erika Levin
North American Regional Forum Liaison Officer, IBA Women Lawyers’ Committee

Additionally, says Levin, we need to recognise the often-immeasurable value of a positive work environment that extends beyond our organisation. ‘Happy workers are better workers’, she adds. ‘DEI initiatives such as mentorship and sponsorship programmes and male champions for change only work if there is genuine “buy-in” and commitment from those involved and the leaders of the organisations’.

It’s essential that both sponsorship and mentorship programmes are tailored to the specific organisation, made measurable and structured appropriately to ensure that professionals and the company are accountable and that these initiatives don’t have the opposite effect of disengaging underrepresented employees.

Creating champions

The IBA Women Lawyers’ Committee Male Champions for Change Initiative, meanwhile, centres on how to get men in leadership positions involved in the drive to achieve gender parity. The initiative is based on a white paper, which then led to the creation of a Male Champions for Change Ambassador Corps within the Committee. The Corps is initially comprised of ten ambassadors, all of whom are high-profile male law firm and legal sector leaders from around the globe, each with a proven track record on promoting gender equity in the legal profession. ‘There are one to two ambassadors per region for now, as well as one global ambassador and an inhouse ambassador’, explains Hjerrild.  

The initiative will have its own task force consisting of Hjerrild, who also sits on the IBA Management Board, Neftali Garro – the Communications Officer on the IBA Women Lawyers’ Committee – and Christina Blacklaws, the former President of the Law Society of England and Wales. The Committee, says Hjerrild, ‘won’t be deciding on any final means of measuring the progress made until we’ve engaged with our male champions for change because we want those changes to be meaningful and impactful’.

There are numerous ways in which organisations can look to inspire senior leaders to become male champions for change, including through embedding DEI as part of core business goals; educating and increasing awareness on gender bias and diversity benefits at all levels of seniority and securing leadership support for those endeavours; offering training opportunities on how to become male champions; showcasing the impact and success stories of allies in driving positive change within the organisation; and ensuring a sufficiently broad definition and focus on DEI, so that it can resonate with all genders.

Levi says that at UBS, very senior members of the company are part of its Male Allies programme. ‘Given that the majority of senior leaders in the legal profession are currently, and have historically been, men, we believe that male business leaders have an important role to play in achieving gender equality’, she says, adding that, to be successful, you need to look at the overall picture and address systemic issues, as well as promoting tangible changes in policy and practice.

Chasing parity

In terms of achieving meaningful change within the profession, Coates explains that many of the barriers to achieving parity, equity and overall feelings of belonging are structural. ‘An organisation must be willing to look at whether they are adequately structured with the appropriate incentives and accountabilities in place for success. While there are many best practices out there, leaders must be willing to measure these to determine what will work best for their teams, so that they may know whether they are getting results,’ he says.

In spring 2021, the IBA, in collaboration with the LexisNexis Rule of Law Foundation, launched the 50:50 by 2030 Gender Project, a global initiative ending in 2030, which aims to study and address the root causes of the lack of gender parity at the most senior levels of the legal profession. Spearheaded by the IBA’s Legal Policy and Research Unit (LPRU) and supported by the IBA Diversity and Inclusion Council and the IBA Women Lawyers’ Committee, six reports have been published as part of the project so far – Chile, England and Wales, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Spain and Uganda. The IBA’s LPRU used an online survey to gather data on law firms, in-house legal teams, the public sector and the judiciary in each of the jurisdictions studied and has published a report on each, with more on the way.

The LPRU describes the process of gathering global data on gender equality in the legal profession as vital, with the 50:50 by 2030 project intended to serve as a unique guiding frame for designing tailored solutions for each organisation. The team views doing so as key to long-term success.

The project is part of one of IBA President Almudena Arpón de Mendívil’s priority focus areas for her term – seeking to attain gender parity in the legal profession. Underpinning the focus area is UN Sustainable Development Goal 5, albeit the IBA’s project has a narrower focus on women in senior roles within the global legal profession. 

Looking at the statistics from the 50:50 by 2030 Gender Project so far, of the six jurisdictions assessed, no jurisdiction has more than 50 per cent of female lawyers within its law firms regardless of seniority, while four countries have more than 50 per cent of female in-house lawyers within their corporations – namely Chile, England and Wales, Nigeria and Uganda. At the senior level, three jurisdictions have more than 50 per cent of in-house lawyers who are female: Chile, Nigeria and Uganda, with England and Wales seeing a fall of over ten per cent in the number of females at the senior level compared to the overall number of female lawyers in-house.

Other research also reveals positive trends in terms of gender parity among in-house legal teams. A report by leadership advisory and executive search company, Russell Reynolds Associates, has found that women comprised 67 per cent of the 43 general counsel appointments at Fortune 500 organisations in 2022, which it says is the first time that women have overtaken men in being selected for senior in-house legal positions at large companies. The report explains that this increase is in part due to the mentorship and development of the role of general counsel in the past few years, while it’s also partly the result of the diversity within the general counsel talent pool.

UBS utilises data monitoring, fair pay practices, management dashboards, employee feedback and toolkits to support individual accountability around gender parity. ‘In our legal department, data is regularly reviewed at the most senior levels to ensure progress towards our aspirational goals. We also ensure that we establish and maintain a pipeline of female talent, providing support through mentoring and other programmes to unlock talent’, explains Levi. She provides the example of ‘Women in Legal’, a community and initiative designed to empower women at UBS to reach their full potential. ‘UBS also collaborates with external law firms, which are assessed and held accountable for DEI progress and for building a diverse pipeline of female lawyers themselves’, she adds.

Stefan Sulzer, Group General Counsel at human resources provider Adecco Group, Switzerland, says that, ‘while gender parity is a key driver in creating diverse legal teams, we are also focused on ensuring inclusion and diversity across other dimensions, such as geography, ethnicity and age. An inclusive culture and a workplace where diverse talent can thrive, coupled with a robust framework to identify and promote talent based on skills and performance, is the basis to attract new talent and to create a sustainable and healthy pipeline of future legal leaders.’

‘Although we have gender parity, we still have work to do, particularly in regard to the senior legal leadership level, to achieve true diversity across multiple dimensions and to fully leverage the power of diversity and inclusion’, Sulzer adds. Meanwhile, Levi explains that in the UBS legal team gender parity has been achieved, but more work is needed to increase representation in other areas, such as holding law firms to account.

Arjun Agarwal, Diversity and Inclusion Officer on the IBA Corporate Counsel Forum and Senior Counsel, Asia, at Chevron Singapore, is keen to stress that progress has been made in the legal profession. ‘Over the last decade, the legal industry overall and particularly the in-house community have made strides in gender parity and increasing representation in management’, he says. ‘The job is not done by any stretch, but the foundation for continued improvement has been established. I view sponsorship and mentorship as two sides of the same coin. Both are important but of the two, sponsorship is crucial for internal advancement and promotion of DEI.’

“I view sponsorship and mentorship as two sides of the same coin […] sponsorship is crucial for internal advancement and promotion of diversity, equity and inclusion

Arjun Agarwal
Diversity and Inclusion Officer, IBA Corporate Counsel Forum

Agarwal explains that formal mentorship programmes serve as the ‘entry-ticket’, being the ‘standard building block for a diverse organisation. However, the success of DEI initiatives and the promotion of diverse candidates within a company is dependent on sponsorship from senior leaders.’

In-house obstacles

For in-house counsel, diversity and such initiatives may differ from the wider legal profession. Coates says that in the UK, US and a number of other jurisdictions, most in-house counsel are experienced hires, which means that many are recruited from law firms and, as such, companies are heavily reliant on the extent of the diversity pipeline in those firms. ‘This makes it challenging to diversify recruitment and therefore the in-house organisation needs to broaden the sources of recruitment’, he says. ‘This can be done via internship programmes, professional training and providing development opportunities (eg, secondments) to diverse young lawyers at relationship firms’.

Other challenges for smaller legal teams include that a lack of diversity can discourage people from underrepresented groups from seeking employment at law firms. Another aspect to consider is that ‘in many companies, in-house lawyers have very limited support’, says Coates. ‘The teams are small and there is the need for a high degree of collaboration and trust. If there are prejudices it will have a significant impact and there is no objective “value measurement”’ – unlike in law firms, which have billable hours – ‘so performance assessment, and “value measurement” or judgments may be more inherently biased and subjective.’

“In-house teams are small and there is the need for a high degree of collaboration and trust. If there are prejudices it will have a significant impact

Michael Coates
Co-Vice Chair, IBA Corporate Governance and Activism Subcommittee

Yet in-house legal teams have the ability to drive positive change within organisations and are holding the wider legal profession to account on DEI. For example, Levi explains that, in 2020, after the murder of George Floyd in the US, an open letter to the legal community was signed by the bank and 11 other global financial institutions to commit to provide opportunities to increase the number of racially and ethnically diverse employees in leadership roles. ‘This was an important part of driving accountability’, she explains.

‘Overall, law firm diversity still lags behind in-house’, says Agarwal. ‘Needle-moving change for the legal profession must begin with law firms, as this is where the vast majority of legal professionals begin their career’.