Making a point of difference

Over the last two years, law firm Simpson Grierson has shrunk its gender pay gap from two percent to zero — but there is still work to do, says Chairman Kevin Jaffe.

“Women make up 40 percent of the executive team and 22 percent of partners, but there is no way that 22 percent is the right number. We are aiming higher. However, five of our last 12 partners have been women, including three of our last four. So it’s realistic to expect that within three years, we could have 30 percent women partners, as retirements are generally going to be male. We have the talent coming through,” says Kevin.

Still, he says it may not be as simple as putting talented women forward because partnerships often come up unplanned. There is an element of being in the right place at the right time with the right skills. 

“In the last couple of years, several women have been the right people in the right place," he says.

Kevin has been with Simpson Grierson for over 25 years, and firmly believes that a diversity and inclusion policy, covering ethnicity, accessibility, LBGT and gender is the right thing to do.

“We live in a diverse world and we need to stay relevant. But to make it work, it can’t just be a pragmatic decision, any policy has to be genuine to engage people. Two or three years ago we were almost confronting in our effort to raise the level of awareness. Now it is ingrained into our way of thinking. Once it becomes part of the fabric, people feel good about it, but really it’s just how things should be.”

Kevin says that over the years, he has seen a shift in the skills required of lawyers. Soft skills such as ability to communicate and make a connection with clients are vital.

“Everyone has the technical ability but it is how you use that to help your clients that’s important. Lawyers can potentially be part of a client’s business strategy, but they need the personal skills to connect with people. It’s about understanding people, and what they need. But if you approach it as a lawyer only answering whether something is legal or not then people can just about look that up on Google.”  

And with a diverse range of clients, it helps not to have lawyers cast from the same mould.  

One of New Zealand's largest law firms, Simpson Grierson employs a relatively high number of senior associates, 63 percent of whom are women. Over half are employed under flexible work arrangements. This allows many women who might have previously left the firm because of other commitments to stay on. 

“If you are a bit more flexible about part-time options as a firm then you will find a workable solution,” says Kevin

The firm also passes on any annual pay rises to employees on parental leave so their salary does not fall behind.  

To ensure fairness, salary performance bands are determined by experience and performance, so staff at similar levels are paid the same amount. And a centralised system means that a remuneration committee, rather than a team leader, sets the pay for new appointments.

“The firm has always tried to do things a little differently. Even in the 1980s, there was real encouragement to promote women, and many of the senior partners acted as mentors to some of the most talented women lawyers who then became partners. It’s never been a traditional law firm — and that’s always been one of its attractions for me,” says Kevin.