Australian women lawyers: it’s far from a pretty picture
In 2012, the Law Council of Australia commissioned a study into why women are leaving the law and the challenges the profession faces if it wants to stem that tide.
The resulting National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS) Report (NARS Report) proved what everyone could see was occurring but didn’t feel comfortable talking about.
While women were entering the profession in increasing numbers and demonstrating great potential as junior lawyers, most were failing to flourish professionally in the long term.
In private practice, most women lawyers were finding their careers stalling, especially if they had children before being made a partner.
Large numbers of women were fleeing big law for the so-called softer options (such as in-house roles or working for government). Even more alarmingly, many were leaving the profession altogether.
The NARS Report was invaluable, because it provided statistical evidence that the legal profession across Australia was haemorrhaging female talent.
Sadly, very little has changed since 2012.
The power of statistics
The NARS was the first Australia-wide research on the attrition of women from the legal profession. It was conducted over a period of 10 months and involved some 4,000 participants, representing close to 10% of the legal profession.
The statistics showed that:
- 61% of all solicitors that were admitted in Australia were women.
- Female solicitors comprised 58% of those admitted in the last 10 years.
- 49% of female solicitors were aged under 35 years, compared to 24% of male solicitors.
At first glance, it appeared that women were taking over the profession.
When we took a peek under the hood, however, things looked very different.
In terms of the gender balance in private practice, the NARS Report showed that:
- 82% were employees
- 11% were partners
- 7% were sole practitioners.
- 60% were employees
- 23% were partners
- 17% were sole practitioners.
In terms of the main roles held by female and male lawyers, the NARS Report showed the following patterns:
For female lawyers:
- 61% worked in a private firm
- 24% worked in-house
- 7% were barristers
- 8% worked in ‘other’ (CLC/ALS, academia, courts, tribunals, not working/retired).
For male lawyers:
- 66% worked in a private firm
- 14% worked in-house
- 15% worked as barristers
- 5% worked in ‘other’ (CLC/ALS, academia, courts, tribunals, not working/retired).
The Law Society of New South Wales’ 2015 Annual Profile confirmed the patterns identified in the NARS Report. Between 1995 and 2015, the number of women solicitors in New South Wales increased by 300.4% (from 3,554 to 14,230), while the number of male solicitors increased by only 59.1% (9,243 to 14,705).
In addition, according to the Law Society data, female solicitors were more strongly represented in the government (63.5%) and corporate (57.6%) sectors, while men were more strongly represented in private practice (55.3%).
Finally, if we look at the Australian Financial Review biannual partnership survey conducted in July 2016, to see what is happening in terms of where the ‘big cash’ is to be made (becoming a partner or principal in private practice), we discover that women account for only 25% of the partners in the major Australian law firms, and for only one in three of new partners.
These are disappointing figures, given the NARS Report’s finding that women made up around 58% of the solicitors admitted in Australia over the last 10 years.
Why is the legal profession haemorrhaging female talent?
According to the NARS Report, women left the law, or didn’t commence working in the profession in the first place, for a variety of reasons:
- Long working hours
- Workplace culture.
Other key findings included:
- Long working hours and poor work–life balance impact both male and female practitioners.
- Women’s career development and career progression opportunities differ from those of their male counterparts.
- There is a perception of conscious or unconscious bias against women who adopt flexible working arrangements as a way to balance their family responsibilities.
- Culture, leadership and the nature of the work were important factors for both male and female practitioners who had changed roles.
- Private practitioners who chose to downsize from a large firm were commonly motivated by their unhappiness with the culture and leadership at their firm.
- The influence of culture, leadership and work–life balance was also evident for those leaving private practice for in-house roles.
- Over one in three women were considering moving to a new job within the next five years. Females in private practice were most likely to be considering taking up an in-house role.
- Flexible working conditions and barriers to promotion were more important factors for women considering leaving their current role than for men.
- Opportunities for better work–life balance, more flexibility and reduced stress motivated those who had left the legal profession entirely.
In the end, the NARS Report demonstrates that both female and male lawyers are struggling. However, I would argue that the evidence supports the view that women lawyers are more adversely affected than male lawyers by the status quo, especially if we focus on what is going on in private practice.
Law firms: great places to work?
In 2008, a study conducted by the Brain and Mind Institute at the University of Sydney showed that depression affected 33% of solicitors and 20% of barristers. In addition, it indicated that around 11% of lawyers contemplate suicide each month and 15% met the criteria for alcoholism. In 2011, a follow-up study showed that 47% of solicitors and 42% of barristers admitted to suffering depression. The research also indicated that lawyers in Australia had much higher levels of distress than the general community.
In my view, the structure and culture of law firms is a major contributing factor to the high rates of mental illness and substance abuse in the legal profession. I would also argue that this is the primary reason why law firms are haemorrhaging female talent.
The reality is that law firms were built by men to suit men. Most firms are very hierarchical in structure and notoriously slow to respond to change. However, in the 21st century, the traditional law firm structure may have reached its use-by date. After all, partnership, as a business structure, has its origins in the medieval period.
Over the past 30 years or so, the subliminal message women receive when joining a law firm is: ‘You’re welcome here, as long as you don’t try to change the décor or rearrange the furniture.’
Barriers to change: the legal mentality
I believe that the mentality of lawyers, even of women lawyers, is blocking reforms in law firms.
An unfortunate side effect of the way we think and analyse problems as lawyers is that we tend to be risk averse. After all, we have all been trained to identify risk. It’s what lawyers do all day, every day – and we’re very good at it. In addition, we enjoy nothing more than sitting around and tearing a new idea to shreds. Furthermore, flowing from the tools we use to analyse and solve the problems our clients are facing is a deeply entrenched conservatism. Most lawyers feel more comfortable clinging to the status quo.
A good example of this is the uneasy relationship between lawyers and digital technology. I think it’s true to say that most older lawyers, whether male or female, are still sceptical about digital. Some even dismiss digital initiatives out of hand, arguing: ‘It’s all about the relationships.’ They fail to see that digital is simply a new way of building relationships with both prospective and existing clients. As a result, digital initiatives die before they even get started, because a lot of people with these outdated attitudes are in positions of power within firms and are calling the shots.
Currently, many firms are struggling with how to use digital to transform their workplaces, as well as to sell their services more effectively. For example, most law firm websites look and sound the same, so they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, which is to distinguish a firm from its competitors and persuade prospective clients to pick up the phone and call them.
Many lawyers struggle when they’re asked to write an article that’s not only informative about developments in the law but also engaging. This is understandable. At law school, we’re trained to write boring case notes, essays and clinical answers to problem questions. Once we become junior lawyers, we’re trained to draft agreements and advices. Even if we flourished as students of the humanities in high school, we’ve since had every ounce of creativity squeezed out of us. As a result, it’s difficult for a lot of lawyers to change gears, break free of a lifetime of legalese and write an article that people actually want to read. This is a pity, because article writing is an excellent way to boost your professional profile and sell the skills you have on offer.
Despite the difficulties lawyers face when dealing with the digital world, there is little doubt that law firms and lawyers are facing a digital future.
Lots of law firms are dipping their toes in the water, but most of them seem reluctant to get their feet wet.
Ironically, the evidence shows that when law firms are willing to think outside the box and work hard to conquer the digital beast, they reap the rewards.
Some Australian examples of lawyers who are taking a creative approach to the digital world include LegalVision, which claims to be the fastest-growing law firm in Australia, Hive Legal and Marque Lawyers.
Interestingly, none of these firms has any problem attracting and retaining female lawyers. Could that be because they’ve branched away from the traditional law firm model and created a working environment that suits women? Whatever they’ve done, they’ve tapped into a pool of talent that everyone else seems to be overlooking, and it’s proving to be a very successful strategy.
How a digital world can make law firms better workplaces for everyone, but especially for women
Rise of the flexible workplace
Digital technology has enabled the rise of the flexible workplace.
This means that lawyers are no longer permanently tied to working physically in the office, even if the trade-off is being contactable 24 hours a day, seven days a week, via email and mobile phone.
This is good news for all lawyers, but especially for women lawyers, who are still bearing the brunt of the responsibility for their families, according to the NARS Study. (Some 23% of women surveyed were primary carers, compared to 4% of males.)
Digital technology can facilitate a wide range of workplace policies that benefit women, such as:
- Job-sharing arrangements
- Working part-time
- Working remotely
- Working casually during maternity leave.
Although these kinds of initiatives are becoming more common in law firms, they should become the norm rather than the exception. It’s simply a matter of firms thinking outside the box and presenting these kinds of options to both partners and employees. Obviously, law firms can’t let client service standards slip, but I’m convinced that a workable solution can be achieved if firms think laterally.
Social media allows lawyers to network in cyberspace rather than at the football
In the good old days, most male lawyers built up a client base through traditional forms of networking, such as referrals via the old-school-tie network, club memberships, inviting prospective clients to boozy lunches, playing golf and attending sporting events.
The trouble with these types of networking strategies for women lawyers is that they tend to be rather ‘blokey’. After all, who is going to retain a woman lawyer who gets slammed at lunch with the boys or falls over at the cricket because she’s had a few too many beers?
The good news is that social media is transforming the way lawyers network with existing and prospective clients.
Social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook are effective networking tools irrespective of gender. Anyone can use these platforms to join discussion groups, keep in touch with colleagues and clients, and hawk their wares.
In short, these tools level the playing field.
Blogging as a business development tool
Law firms have used content marketing to sell their services for decades.
Content marketing means writing articles on areas of expertise to attract new clients to the firm and boost the reputation of the author-practitioner.
The rise of digital platforms has increased the potential of blogging as a business development tool for lawyers, and a lot of firms have jumped on the bandwagon – albeit with varying degrees of success.
The most valuable aspect of article writing for women lawyers is that it is a terrific equaliser. You either write well or you don’t. Gender doesn’t play a role in whether you have strong communication skills on paper or have the ability to explain legal concepts in a way that others find easy to understand. Gender doesn’t dictate whether you can capture the big picture in a 1,500-word article that helps clients separate the wheat from the chaff.
I believe that digital content marketing is taking over from traditional, more masculine forms of networking because, in an era of fierce competition in the legal services market, clients are more concerned about the quality of the legal work and the value for money they’re getting from their legal service providers, than they are about whether the work is being performed by a ‘mate’.
Finally, with an increasing number of women moving in-house, there is no guarantee that the corporate counsel at your dream client will give the work to the lawyer she went to school with or the one who invited her for a game of golf. Instead, she may decide to give it to the lawyer she believes is most qualified to handle the matter or transaction. It’s also possible that this lawyer may be a woman.
‘Digital’ doesn’t mean that the conventional modes of networking are now redundant. Rather, my argument is that they are becoming less influential in a digital world.
Digital tools such as eDiscovery make lawyers more efficient
It’s also important to remember that new digital legal technologies can make lawyers more efficient.
Quite often, I think, lawyers are resistant to taking the time to understand new technologies simply because they’re so busy. Their heads are too full of complex legal issues to think about what’s happening at the coalface.
Nevertheless, by taking the time to understand what tools like eDiscovery and artificial intelligence can achieve, and then using them to develop strategies to run matters more efficiently, you can not only reduce the amount of work involved but save your clients a fortune.
In the end, it’s a win-win situation for everyone when a lawyer is not only a terrific legal technician but also an excellent project manager who understands technology.
Embracing a digital future: a strategy for moving forward
All the evidence indicates that the legal profession will soon be forced to embrace the digital world. It’s no longer a question of whether it will happen, but when.
For these reasons, I think that the ideal situation is for women lawyers in private practice to stick around, rather than flee the ship.
Those women who have made it to partner should press the leadership and management teams in their firms to embrace the digital revolution and then take it one step further: ensure that digital is used to change the way law firms operate.
Those lawyers who are currently employees should push their firms’ partners to lobby for and support these changes.
Leadership teams should listen to what everyone has to say and then spend some time coming up with a vision for the future that will create a working environment where talent, rather than gender, determines who flourishes.
I’m not calling for this kind of change just because a digitally-inspired reform of law firms will make them better places for women lawyers to work. Rather, I believe that this kind of change will create a better working environment for all lawyers. It will ensure that law firms become environments where everyone can reach their potential, irrespective of their gender, and achieve an improved work–life balance.