Navigating partnership paths in Belgian law firms: a look at gender dynamics

Partnership paths in Belgian law firms
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In a revealing analysis conducted by YouConnect in December 2023, we delved into the professional journeys of approximately 500 partners across leading law firms [1] in Belgium. Our exploration aimed not just to sketch the portrait of the average partner but to unfold the trends in partner promotions over the last decade (2013-2023).

Rising times to partnership and diverse routes to the top

Our analysis revealed that 41.5% of partners were promoted during the 2013-2023 period. The majority of partners ascended to their positions prior to 2013, which is not surprising as partnerships often mark a long-term commitment, typically culminating in retirement.

The road to partnership traditionally spans a significant duration, averaging around 12 years, though recent trends suggest a slight extension to 13-14 years on average.

We can categorize the partner tracks into three distinct categories, reflecting the varied pathways:

  • Homegrown Partners (33%): who climbed the ranks within the law firm where they initiated their careers.
  • Lateral Movers (27%): who secured a partnership after transitioning to (or founding) a new firm, a move that directly led to their partner status.
  • Diverse Trajectories (30%): a group with varied career paths. Although their journeys are less linear and more intricate, a common thread is that they all switched firms at least once and did not secure a partnership immediately upon joining a new firm.
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A persistent gender gap

Probably the most eye-catching statistic however is the data we found on gender disparity among partners in Belgium’s top law firms: men represent 81% of partnerships. Despite Belgian law faculties boasting a consistent majority of female law graduates for over two decades, this trend persists even in recent years, with 75% of partner promotions from 2013-2023 being awarded to men. Contrary to what some may believe, this imbalance is not merely a residual effect of past practices, but it is an issue that continues in the present.

Compared to the United States and the United Kingdom, Belgium is doing worse.

In the United States, male partners represent around 75% of all equity partnership positions and 67% of all non-equity partnerships[2]. However, there is a notable distinction: the U.S. has a significantly lower percentage of female law graduates compared to Belgium. It wasn’t until 2016 that the number of female enrollments in U.S. law schools began to surpass that of their male counterparts. By contrast, Belgium has enjoyed a consistent majority of female law graduates for more than two decades. Currently, women constitute over two-thirds of law graduates in Belgium, a figure that’s on the rise as it approaches 70%.

In the United Kingdom, women account for about one-third of equity partners in law firms, and 47% of salaried partners are women, an increasing number[3]. The higher proportion of female promotions the last years has been driven by the recent introduction of targets at several firms in the U.K.

Some may argue that women are simply less interested in top executive roles. This argument is however hard to support, especially considering the 2023 Legal 500 General Counsel Benelux Powerlist, which does demonstrate gender balance. Moreover, even if there were some truth to this perspective, the stark 80/20 male-to-female ratio in Belgian partnership positions seems overly disproportionate. This is particularly true given the considerable percentage of female law graduates mentioned earlier and the comparison with the U.S. and the U.K.

Perspectives from the inside

To gain deeper insights we sat down for a conversation with two female partners, Caroline Borgers (Linklaters) and Anneleen Van de Meulebroucke (Eubelius), to hear their thoughts. Both expressed their surprise at the starkness of the statistics. We asked them how they reflect on their personal journeys to partnership and how being a women influenced their paths, especially in the context of these findings.

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Caroline: “I knew rather fast that I wanted to become a partner and I was open about this ambition at Linklaters. This helped me gain the required support and plan for my future career early on. However, I recognize that many young lawyers, including female talents, may hesitate to recognize and express such ambitions, potentially missing out on the opportunity or delaying their promotion as a result.”

Anneleen: “Although I have always been ambitious, I did not aspire to become a partner at Eubelius right from the start. I slightly learned towards the so-called tiara-syndrome in the beginning of my career: I worked hard and performed well, hoping it would get noticed. It was seizing opportunities, support from the firm and lots of perseverance and self-development that eventually led to me being a partner. I was fortunate to be assigned a huge data protection matter shortly after joining the firm which did not have a dedicated practice at the time. Not much later, the GDPR was announced, I invested in it and before I knew it, I was leading a team and managing clients. Everybody’s path is different and it is important to know that it is not expected from you to start your career with a masterplan to become a partner one day. The idea can grow along the way but it is a certainty that you need to work for it and it is vital to voice your ambitions better sooner than later and to avoid closing doors in the meantime.”

Caroline acknowledges that her openness about her career ambitions from early on required a fair level of self-confidence, while Anneleen was not so much concerned about the next steps in her career during her initial years as a lawyer. Could it be that female lawyers are relatively less self-confident and expressive than their male counterparts when it comes to the partner track, and that this is a possible reason for the disparity?

Caroline emphasized the crucial support she received during her entire career at Linklaters. The firm’s commitment to her growth was evident through client exposure, coaching, development opportunities and support during and after her pregnancies. Notably, her senior (male) partners and clients played a crucial role in her journey, offering tremendous support and opportunities.

Caroline: “In my experience, men can play a pivotal positive role in stimulating female partner elections. My now fellow partners gave me guidance, encouragement and helped develop strong client relations. In the gender disparity discussion, the last thing we need are voices or measures that create a schism between men and women in the law firm industry.”

Anneleen shares similar experiences at Eubelius and mentioned the opportunity to develop a new expertise in the law firm and the firm’s various initiatives that helped her on her track like leadership programs (e.g. the WILL-program) which supported her all the way through.

Anneleen: “Support is not only expressed in big initiatives, it also manifests from small gestures. What was very valuable to me was the affirmation I received from other partners, peers and colleagues. These could be minor interactions, but they significantly boosted my motivation to continue my path.”

When asked about how their law firms would respond to the statistics, both Caroline and Anneleen acknowledged that gender disparity remains an important topic in the management room. Law firms are actively seeking effective strategies to address and reduce this gap.

Caroline: “Whilst there is still work to be done, our Belgian office has consistently achieved the annual global gender diversity target of currently 40% for female partner promotions at Linklaters over the last years. Whilst I was initially skeptical about gender targets, my experience is that they help to achieve progress at a much faster pace. Looking at our partner promotions, I can confidently say that each one of the female partners elected are top talents who have thoroughly earned their spot (as do the male partners of course). Having a female senior partner and seeing more and more women being promoted to the partnership does really help in terms of creating diverse role models. We are determined to continue working hard on improving gender balance going forward, in addition to measures aimed at other forms of diversity, such as increasing our number of partners from under-represented minority groups.”.

Anneleen confirms that there is no magic bullet solution to address the situation and shares the initial skepticism Caroline had about targets: “I do believe in the power of a critical mass. Being one of the few women around the partner’s table is a reality check. Yet, I have doubts whether targets are the right and the only solution. The problem is multi-faceted, so the solution should be multi-faceted as well. What is certain for me is that law firms need to support their high potentials to develop their qualities, because I am truly convinced that the talent is there.”

The stories of Caroline and Anneleen highlight a critical insight: individual ambition and determination are vital, yet the support and encouragement from the firm and peers are equally essential in the realization of partnership aspirations. Law firms, therefore, carry a substantial responsibility in actively fostering female talent, not only identifying and encouraging potential candidates but also providing the necessary support and development opportunities to facilitate their professional growth.

If law firms want to boost their female partnership numbers, they need to proactively identify and cultivate their female talent as soon as possible and foster an environment and culture where their talents are acknowledged and nurtured. While you cannot push women into partnership roles, law firms can at least make them aware that they have the potential and offer specific development opportunities and training for those interested in pursuing the partner track.

Recruitment and retention challenges follow as newer generations have different priorities

Whichever the reasons or solutions may be for the gender disparity, the reality for law firms in Belgium is that they are looking for talent in a predominantly female talent pool, a phenomenon that is not going to change anytime soon. If they fail to properly address gender disparity, law firms are at risk to disconnect with more than two-thirds of their talent pool as young female law graduates may struggle to relate to their top leadership, potentially leading them to reconsider their interest in a particular law firm. Addressing the gender disparity is not just a matter of equity but is a strategic imperative for law firms aiming to remain relevant and attractive to a diverse talent pool.

Hypermodern offices, cozy coffee corners and break rooms, yearly ski trips and other “work hard, play hard”-mentality initiatives are often proudly showcased by law firms during candidate interviews. However, these seemingly unique selling points may quickly lose their shine when a (female) candidate points out that their top management is not really an epitome of diversity. Job seekers, aiming to find their ideal workplace, often look for role models and leaders who reflect diversity and inclusivity, someone they can relate to and aspire to emulate.

Anneleen: “When I applied for Eubelius in 2011, it wasn’t a topic that was on my mind, but I’ve noticed an increase in awareness among graduates”.

Law firms remain an attractive starting point for the career of many fresh law graduates as YouConnect’s 2022 legal labor market study showed that approximately half of Belgian law graduates kickstart their career in a law firm. Law firms offer juniors a wealth of opportunities to hone essential skills such as drafting, time management, effective communication, attention to detail,… A lot of female law graduates start their career in a law firm, despite a male-dominated leadership landscape and a seemingly exceptionally hilly career growth path. However, should there be a shift in perception, law firms might find themselves facing even more challenges in attracting top talent. It’s crucial for firms to address these disparities proactively, ensuring that their culture and leadership structures resonate with the evolving expectations and aspirations of newer generations.

Furthermore, the challenge extends beyond recruitment to the crucial aspect of talent retention. The lack of female partners could also be linked to the disproportionate attrition rates of female lawyers. YouConnect’s 2022 legal labor market study revealed that female lawyers are leaving the bar more frequently and earlier than their male counterparts. After ten years nearly half of the women who started in law firms have left the bar, compared to only 28% of male starters. It goes both ways: the lack of female partners can cause higher attrition of female lawyers, while higher attrition of female lawyers means there are fewer female candidates for partnership.

For many law firms, talent retention in general has become a challenge in recent years. Considering the amount of female law graduates and the attrition rate of female lawyers, addressing the gender disparity could just be the key to a futureproof law firm in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world.

[1] Based on the rankings of Legal500 and Chambers & Partners.

[2] Law360 Pulse Women in Law Report video on YouTube

[3] Diversity in law firms' workforce - Solicitors Regulation Authority

Authored by Diether Vandenbussche - 26 Feb 2024

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