Gender Diversity in European Law Firms: A View from Switzerland

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23 Sep 2019

Caroline Clemetson is a partner in the banking and finance department of Schellenberg Wittmer in Geneva and in Zurich. She is also a member of the firm’s management committee. 

 

Caroline Clemetson, Schellenberg Wittmer.

CAROLINE Clemetson is a lawyer on a mission: she’s determined to increase gender diversity in the upper echelons of the Swiss legal industry. As she says: “People have to be aware of the need to create equal chances.” 

The Swiss society and the Swiss legal industry are, she feels, very conservative, and it is challenging in an environment like that for firms to change their cultures and make them more inclusive. 

At her firm Schellenberg Wittmer (SW), Clemetson notes that she has never experienced any resistance when she’s pushed for more opportunities for women, but she is aware that in other firms there are few partners who are female and almost none in managing positions. Her experience, she says, has not been typical, highlighting how at her firm there are women on the management committee – including Clemetson herself. She feels that over the last couple of years things have started to change. Other firms, she explains, are starting to follow in the footsteps of those that have been more progressive. 

Progression 

High percentages of associates in Swiss firms are women, but they don’t progress to the partnership in sufficient numbers, let alone to management positions, Clemetson points out.  

In Clemetson’s view, “the problem is that you can make a career between the ages of 30 and 45, and that’s the time when women fall pregnant and have to cope with a family and a career. We are unfortunately still in an industry billing by the hour.” 

She feels that women are still not pushed to become partners within Swiss law firms. There are now more female partners at SW – in contrast to when Clemetson joined  and she explains that an environment where women can be promoted has been created. 

This has, she tells us, taken deliberate work: all partners have been given unconscious bias training; lawyers can now also become a partner and work part time; and the firm makes a deliberate effort to push talented female associates towards partnership with equal chances for all.  

As proof of this progress, Clemetson informs us that as of 1 January 2019, three new female partners were elected, and all were pregnant at the time. She highlights how the simple fact of there being more women has changed the atmosphere of the firm as a whole, and how that in itself has made female progression easier. 

Diversity needs to be at all levels.” 

Pay gap 

Switzerland, Clemetson reveals, has an issue regarding the pay gap between men and women. She tells us that, generally speaking, women are being paid about 19% less than men for equal jobs, which led to a general strike of women on June 14, 2019. The Swiss legal industry has become more aware of the need to make progress on the issue and, as a result, Clemetson hopes that the pay gap will not be a reality in most law firms. SW, she says, is careful to ensure equal pay and pensions: “If I saw inequality we would act immediately.” 

Trends 

However, Clemetson is concerned that equality is being diluted in ‘window dressing’ gestures, such as law firms appointing women as counsel but not as partners. “They don’t get the same salaries as partners. It is so they can say they have senior women but it’s window dressing. The same goes for whether they are equity or non-equity, as that also makes a difference.” 

Clemetson also notes the tendency for women to move in-house because “in private practice you have to bill your hours, which doesn’t allow flexibility.” This transfer in-house, she suggests, is also because women think they won’t become partners in law firms. Within the legal industry, Clemetson highlights that women work more in fields that are less male dominated, such as employment law and family law – again, she notes that the conditions tend to be different in these areas. 

Interestingly, Clemetson is of the view that more women are now working in investment management from the industry side – not as lawyers but in-house. “In a law firm you need to build a business in that area and it’s very male dominated. It’s harder work to get there.”

On the whole, when it comes to gender diversity Clemetson tells us that “everyone is talking about it, but she’s disappointed that more people and firms are still not taking significant action. This is despite the reasons for taking action being clear and imperative“They can see that it’s a competitive advantage, as, for instance, female and male GCs like having women on the other side and are less likely to hire a firm with an extremely male partnership. It becomes a criterion. It also matters when the invoicing takes place, as clients look at who’s done the work. Diversity needs to be at all levels.”