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The Glass CEEling: Connecting the Dots

The Glass CEEling: Connecting the Dots

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Part 1 of the CEE Legal Matters 2014 report on women in law firm partnership across CEE appeared in the April 2014 issue of CEE Legal Matters, and provided the number and percentages of female partners at leading law firms across CEE. In this Part 2 of our report, managing partners of law firms from across the region provide their perspectives on the data.

All Partners who agreed to speak on the matter insisted that the numbers did not reflect an explicit policy vis-a-vis gender equality. Even Manuela Nestor, Co-Managing Partner of Nestor Nestor Diculescu Kingston Petersen (NNDKP) in Romania – the firm with the highest percentage of female partners in CEE (84%) – stated that, “NNDKP did not propose itself to hire or appoint as partners female lawyers,” and asserted that the firm’s selection criteria for hires at any level never included gender. Instead, she said, the firm’s partners look at “the professional skills, attitude, loyalty, [and] reputation” of prospective candidates, and any gender imbalance is simply because, “it happened that at every selection, the female lawyers meeting the criteria outnumbered the male lawyers.” 

Sebastian Gutiu, the Managing Partner of Schoenherr in Romania – the office with the second highest percentage of female partners (63%) – made the same claim: “it might simply be a coincidence that we simply ran into a higher number of highly skilled professionals and high potentials that were women. It is not like we went out there and only recruited women.” 

Similarly, Tomasz Wardynski, the Managing Partner of Wardynski & Partners in Poland (45%), stated that while “women have always played a vital part in the life of our firm we have never differentiated between women and men when promoting our lawyers to partnership positions.” 

And on the other side of the spectrum, offices with relatively low percentages of female lawyers in partnership made the same claim. Martin Brodey, Partner at Dorda in Austria (4%), asserted that: “We have an approach strictly focused on performance and gender is completely irrelevant for that.” He noted that “in fact the firm was co-founded by one of the first and most respected female lawyers in Austria, Theresa Jordis, who unfortunately passed away in September 2013.”

The Issue of Culture

One of the primary aspects all commenters pointed to is the effect of national or regional culture on the partnership track for women. Patricia Gannon, Senior Partner at Karanovic & Nikolic in Serbia (40%), said that, “I believe as the only foreign/woman partner that the issue is predominantly cultural with women in this region still rather governed by local cultural expectations regarding the family.” Similarly, according to Ayse Herguner Bilgen, Managing Partner of Herguner Bilgen Ozeke in Turkey (50%), “though there has been much progress on women entering the legal profession, we believe that there is still the stereotype of gender roles, unfortunately.” 

Some partners are less convinced. Partners in both Bulgaria and Romania, for instance, claimed that no such stereotypes exist in their markets. Assen Djingov, the Managing Partner of Djingov, Gouginski, Kyutchukov & Velichkov (40%), explained that: “In Bulgaria you do not see much of the ‘house wife’ phenomenon, which I would explain based on the communist period of our history when one salary was not sufficient to feed a family. As a result the tradition is that male and female are generally equally active in searching for a job position including the legal profession.” Also referring to the communist era, Manuela Nestor says: “Romania evolved from a socialist political regime. During that period of time, the active population, both male and female, was obligated by law to perform a ‘useful activity for society’ – therefore to be employed in various sectors of activity. At both political and social levels for 50+ years women were not discriminated in terms of the possibility of being hired or promoted in decisional positions. On a contrary, they were obligated to work and be involved in the political activities, as limited and imposed as they were. As a result, culturally, Romanians have always been accustomed in the past 60 years to seeing women in all kind of professional positions, from simple worker to the highest decisional positions in the state.” This could explain why Romanian firms have the highest percentage of female lawyers (44%) and why Bulgaria registers a relative high number as well (33%) – but of course these were not the only CEE markets exposed to a communist regime. 

And indeed, in apparent contradiction to the “communist history explains female participation in the law” theory, many lawyers believe that women in Germanic or Northern European countries are less conflicted about pursuing partnership. Mehmet Gun, Managing Partner of Mehmet Gun & Partners in Turkey (50%), stated that “by the age of making partner – 30-35 – women tend to focus on building a family, versus men who are culturally expected to bring home the bacon. If you were to compare Turkey to Sweden or other Nordic/Germanic states, the differences are considerable in this regard.” A similar suggestion was made by Konrad Groller, Partner in charge of recruitment at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in Austria (0%): “While we are in a lucky position in countries like Germany or Austria that it is generally far more common for women to have full time jobs and a strong career, it may to some extent probably be a cultural issue in other regions.” This may be true – but it is nonetheless worth pointing out that according to the data, Austria has the lowest percentage of female partners in the region, with an average of 14%, while Turkey was as high as third, with a percentage of 34%. It appears cultural stereotypes and assumptions are of limited usefulness in explaining the numbers. 

Job Markets and Education

The percentages of men and women in job markets as a whole was also highlighted as playing a role. In Romania, Gutiu claimed that “anywhere between 65-70% of lawyers in Bucharest are female and I think that rolls out throughout the entire country – at least the feeling we get.” Similarly, Nestor pointed out that “statistically, the Romanian female population was constantly outnumbering the male population. This triggered a certain situation as regards the number of employed and promoted women.” 

And the percentage of women pursuing legal educations may turn out to be a significant influence on how the percentages of women in partnership may change in the future. In Bulgaria, Djingov said, “I would not be surprised if the percentage of female law students in Bulgaria is higher than male.” The same is pointed out for Romania, as according to Nestor, “the number of female graduates of the law faculties was and still is higher than the male graduates.” In Turkey too, according to Bilgen, “the number of female students in the legal profession has largely approached very close to that of the number of male students. The female applicants who apply to our office have among the best GPAs and other traits when compared to the male applicants.” 

According to Gun, this growing trend of increased percentages of women graduating high school can also explain the gap between the current percentages of female associates versus that of female partners in Turkey: “My general impression is that the percentage of female law students is actually higher than male at the moment. In Turkey, at least, entry into law school is based on an exam in which female students seem to generally be doing better. This did not use to be the case in the past and is a trend that is a few years old – law schools were traditionally a lot more male-heavy. This means that while it then is natural to expect an increase in the percentage of women at the associate level, it might take some time for that to resonate at partner levels as these young professionals move up the ladder.” 

Brodey, however, noted that high female graduation rates have been the norm in Austria for decades, despite the persistently low percentages of female partners, so it’s not clear that the two phenomena are inevitably connected. 

Life in a Law Firm

When it comes to actions law firms can take themselves to increase partnership opportunities for women the obvious first step in avoiding sexist hiring practices is avoiding gender bias in the creation of a formal career path. And not surprisingly, as already highlighted, all firms that we spoke with explained that productivity and job performance are the main drivers for hiring/promoting partners. “Becoming a partner in our office is based on clear criteria and performance reviews,” said Bilgen in Turkey, for instance. “This corporate structure allows a female associate to be evaluated on equal grounds with any other associate – whether female or male – minimizing the ‘glass ceiling effect’ for our female associates.” Nestor as well insisted that “productivity is the main driving principle” in her firm’s partnership/promotion evaluations.

Many of the commenters, however, believe that a passive “we will not discriminate” approach is insufficient given some of the particular challenges women face in pursuing both motherhood and career. Gutiu explained that: “One of the main reasons why women are behind men is simply because in most instances it is a matter of choice. In most cases, if they choose to grow a family with 2 or 3 children, as harsh as it sounds, it is hard to make partner or compete with male partners because of the 6 to 9 or so month breaks. The reality is that maternity packages still tend to be primarily taken by women.” And Wardynski explains that “women often feel that the existing corporate model at many law firms means that they have to give up some of their ambitions if they want to have a family life.” 

Of course, firms are taking active steps to minimize the impact of this. Gannon emphasized: “We take a very flexible approach to the needs of women and family balance to ensure that they remain with us.” Brodey noted that his firm is also committed to spearheading a proactive approach: “We are front runners in offering flexible time schedules or part-time solutions, which is really attractive. This has increased female lawyers presence in our firm and at the level of associates, we are leveled out – more even than male associates. We expect this will be felt amongst the partnership ranks naturally soon.” Bilgen pointed to such helpful options as “offering telecommunicating and home offices as flexible working premises for both single and married female associates.” 

According to Gun, firm cultures as a whole need to adapt: “We believe in work-life balance for all our members, not only female lawyers. A constant push to bill creates a need to spend a lot of time in the office, meaning you tend to sacrifice on the personal life front. The reality is that even men, if pushed hard in such an environment, stop being productive and turn into mindless zombies churning away.” Hugh Owen, Partner and Head of South Eastern Europe Desk at Allen & Overy, explained the path his firm is taking towards achieving its goal of 20% female partnership by 2020: “In 2010, Allen & Overy introduced formal arrangements for full equity partners to work part-time. These arrangements have the key aim of retaining more women through to partnership. Open to all partners globally, part-time partnership aims to provide a genuine option for men and women to adjust the amount of time they work, while continuing to progress as an equity partner, for a maximum period of eight years.”

And law firms aren’t operating in a vacuum. Lawmakers in many CEE jurisdictions are taking steps as well to liberalize labor regulations and expand options for both motherhood and career – though some lawyers sound conflicted about the overall effect on efficiency. Djingov, for instance, commented that: “Bulgaria (bad for  business in general) has one of the most liberal employment law regimes during pregnancy and the length of maternity leave – 2 years with an option for an extension of one more year. It is obvious that such a liberal regime does not force female lawyers to make a hard choice between ‘my family or my job.’”

The Difficult Choice

Of course, to some extent there’s only so much law firms can do to minimize the demands made by BigLaw on those who practice within it. Groller noted that life in a law firm is by its nature dynamic. As a result, he said, the real challenge is keeping female lawyers with the firm long enough to get them promoted to partner: “We have a strong commitment to promote female lawyers to partners and do not see any reason why this should not work. We actively support female lawyers to extend their careers with us in order to broaden the pool for female partner candidates. It is a myth that a senior lawyer life cannot be combined with that of a family and we clearly see in our Associate base that this is by no means a women only topic.” 

Owen too referred to this almost unavoidable fact of big law firm life: “It is a complex issue taking into account the nature of Allen & Overy’s client work which is mostly transactionally driven, which is not appealing for all female lawyers striving for work-life balance.”

And, of course, alternatives to the partner track do exist. In Turkey, Bilgen explained,  “it is very common for female associates working in law firms to opt for different roles (such as in-house counsel) as opposed to being a law firm partner since one can argue that an in-house role offers more flexibility in balancing work and personal life because there are no billable hours per se.” Brodey commented on a similar trend in Austria as well. 

Thus, not surprisingly, firms that registered a high number of female partners link it generally to an ability to retain their female associates for longer than most. For example, Wardynski took pride in the fact that his firm has, “created a working atmosphere and a culture at W&W where women feel that their knowledge and qualifications are appreciated and rewarded and that no distinction is made between women lawyers and their male counterparts.” 

At the end of the day, systematic change rarely happens overnight. According to Groller, while positive steps are being made, “this is a theme that really only came in the focus in certain regions in recent years and it will likely take a while before real change will be visible. It is however, without a doubt, very much at the top of the mind of a lot of partners of law firms.” Owen too emphasized this: “It is early days in terms of assessing the long term impact of such initiatives but we will continue to support and find ways to track our progress of our firm and the wider profession in achieving greater diversity at all levels and in all jurisdictions.” 

The reasons for the need to increase the number of women partners is also bottom-line focused. As Gutiu explained: “It is only normal to not have any form of gender bias in your selection/promotions – it can only mean that you have a larger talent pool to select from.” Groller made a similar link: “It is reasonable to expect that talent is spread evenly between men and women. As a result, if a firm had a talent pool of for example 90% males, you are sure to miss out on great talent. Fortunately, we are able to attract a balanced talent pool.” He also pointed out that it becomes a business issue since this is not just a topic at the top of law firm partners’ minds, but clients’ as well: “A lot of our clients have legal teams led by women, who can be very picky with regards to this as well aside from the usual law firm performance metrics.” 

Beyond the Numbers

The data presented in the survey was gathered from law firm websites. Aside from the natural limitations of this methodology, several other interesting points were raised by the partners we spoke to.  

The first was that looking at individual offices, especially in the case of international law firms, might not always yield the most accurate results. As Owen explained: “Given the smaller size of some of these offices, in some cases two partners, the numbers can vary quite considerably.”

Comparing countries in terms of partnership numbers might also be an exercise of comparing apples and oranges. As Groller pointed out, “there are considerable differences in what the title of Partner means across different markets.” He explained: “Freshfields has a worldwide full lockstep system. This means that there are no regional or specific office partners – rather only global equity partners – meaning that global numbers for firms are far more relevant.” As a result, he pointed out, some firms in general have a smaller number of partners relative to the total number of lawyers when compared to other firms who would sometimes call associates that qualify as lawyers partners, even if they share an equal remuneration and responsibility status as associates in other firms. 

Another aspect that might skew the statistics, Groller suggested, is the nature of the firms considered, as “one could expect that if one looks at the legal market as a whole, the ratio of female partners might be much higher.” This is certainly possible – though the opposite could be true as well.

Finally, Owen explained that, “this is not just a CEE issue, it is a profession-wide and society-wide issue.”


Patricia Gannon has the last word: “My strong recommendation is to encourage law firms to deal flexibly with female partners at certain stages of their lives but at the same time to have strong expectations as to what they can achieve. Lowering the goal posts is not in the interest of the business or ultimately the female partner in the long term.”

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