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Law firms are losing out on talent by not harnessing the potential of their female workforce. Elizabeth Anderson writes that firms need to start making law a more woman-friendly career choice

While people will be unanimous in their congratulation of an older single mother, Rachida Dati, the French Justice Minister, on the birth of a daughter, women may find themselves reluctant to rejoice in the example she has set in returning to work just five days after the birth by caesarean section. As the world economic downturn continues to deepen, the headlines did not highlight the dedication of a woman to work and duty in troubled times, nor even the reason that lay behind her decision to attend the meeting called by her boss, President Nicholas Sarkozy. Instead, they focused on how attractive she looked and how well she walked in her high heels.

This says it all; that even in such extraordinary times, the focus is not on the vital role that high-performing and high ability women can play, but on how women can best detract from their inadequacies.

When so many women are choosing law as a career, firms concerned about utilisation need to start at the most obvious place, and look at what they are doing to nurture women – who make up nearly half of their talent – towards success. Like their corporate commercial counterparts (who are addressing the debate through mentoring programmes and leadership coaching courses) firms need to grasp the nettle and take the first small step towards grooming the next generation of legal leaders, as well as signalling to the markets that gender is no longer an issue.

According to a survey published by the Association of Women Lawyers in the US in November 2008, just 8% of leaders of law practices in the US are women lawyers. In parallel with the UK, about 50% of the entrants to law firms are women. If utilisation is a key driver for 2009, then examination of why half a firm’s intellectual capital has been underutilised would seem critical.

The answer might be to begin by asking some core questions:

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