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Why the lack of female partners at Bermuda law firms?

On Thursday, March 8, Bermuda will join other nations to celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD). This day provides an opportunity for countries to reflect on the achievements and successes of women around the world.

As a graduate of feminist theory and a young lawyer, IWD allows me to reflect on the accomplishments that women have made in the legal profession. The woman’s involvement has been met with challenge the world over, but women have overcome these obstacles and forged paths for others to walk in; such women as Clara Brett Martin, Dr Ivy Williams, Charlotte E Ray and Dame Lois Browne-Evans.

Statistics from the Bermuda Bar Association, as at January 2012, show that there are 441 members who hold practising certificates. Impressively, 214 or 49 percent of members are females. A cursory glance at these statistics supports the notion that there has been great progress. A closer analysis of these statistics shows that approximately 136 of the practicing members are partners in firms, only 39 of these partners are women. This figure (although inclusive of sole practitioners) begs the question, why? If women and men leave law school in equal numbers, why do women seem to lag behind their male counterparts?

Could it be the size of Bermuda’s jurisdiction? Could it be that there is a “glass ceiling”? Are women leaving the profession at the “wrong” time to have children?

The argument could be put forth that the size of Bermuda’s Bar contributes to the lack of female partners. However when one looks at the figures of other jurisdictions such as Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, surprisingly women’s experiences there do not differ from the experience in Bermuda. In all three jurisdictions the number of female partners accounts for around 19 percent of practitioners.

Many would submit that it is the proverbial glass ceiling that contributes to the disparity. The glass ceiling concept, feminists have argued, acts an invisible barrier that hinders the progression of women by virtue of being a female. I do not think that the answer simply lies in the glass ceiling.

Although the numbers can be off-putting, I see an opportunity to investigate and address the obvious disparity. In order to counter the imbalance, firms and members within the profession must openly acknowledge the attrition and disparity that exists. Women bring a skill-set and perspective that is valuable to business and is needed at all levels. All stakeholders have to engage in a dialogue.

The theme for this year’s IWD is “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures”. Another suggestion to ameliorate the disparity is the role of mentoring. It is important for younger female practitioners who are entering the profession to have the ear and time of a senior female practitioner. Such relationships would assist young practitioners as they transition into the practice to glean invaluable advice from the women who have gone before them.

The Bermuda Bar does a fantastic job of engaging and training young practitioners. However, I believe that with the areas that are needed for improvement, it provides a great opportunity to ensure that there is parity at the top levels for women. It is important to acknowledge that women bring dynamic skills and perspectives to business and the law and their presence at all levels is essential.

In 1997, Philip Sycamore, then president of the Law Society of the UK, said that “we, [the legal profession], are well on the way to having a gendered balance profession ... however, we still have a long way to go to ensure a profession that offers equal opportunity to all regardless of gender or sex”. This quote still has relevance today.

In the years to come, more women will continue to join the ranks of the legal profession, increasing the female presence. However, it is important to acknowledge that a disparity does exist between the sexes and to acknowledge that the opportunities are there to create equality. Once the acknowledgement and action takes place, the ascension to partner, if that is something that a female practitioner desires, will not only be a viable option but an attainable one. If a balance is not achieved, the profession will suffer in the long run.

On the surface we may assure ourselves that there is equality between the sexes but a closer look will reveal that an imbalance exists that is not good for the health of a profession that has such a distinguished history and has made its contribution to society by fighting for the rights of others.

Kimberley D Caines practises civil litigation at the law firm of MJM Limited. She was called to the Bermuda Bar on October 14, 2011 and can be contacted at kcaines[AT]mjm.bm.

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Published March 06, 2012 at 1:00 am (Updated March 06, 2012 at 7:55 am)

Why the lack of female partners at Bermuda law firms?

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