Australian law firms, on a superficial level, appear to be doing all the right things to support women – at least compared to employers in other sectors.
Women in other industries can only look on enviably at the opportunities available for women in law: excellent diversity and leadership programs, generous paid parental leave and clear career planning.
But those of us working outside the law don’t envy the hours of private practice lawyers. Nor do we envy the fact that the way much legal work is carried out, and particularly the way it is billed, is hardly conducive to part time and flexible work arrangements.
This is the real hurdle for seeing law firms appoint more women partners. If and when the profession can finally make the jump, we’ll see the excellent pipeline of talented female lawyers reach its long-promised potential.
Women have been graduating from law school in equal numbers to men for decades and yet women still account for much less than 30% of partners and just one of the managing partners in Australia’s largest law firms, according to Lawyers Weekly research.
So what’s the next step? It’s not quotas (there’s much that can be done before that) but rather a significant cultural and infrastructure shift that sees part time work become a perfectly acceptable means for women — and men – to progress their legal careers.
The infrastructure shift is the difficult part, but one that will move organically if the cultural aspect can be addressed now.
We know that women drop out of the legal profession, or at least significantly halt the brakes on their career, if they have children. It’s one thing to offer 12 or 14 weeks paid parental leave (as many law firms commendably do in Australia) it’s another to shift the cultural stigma associated with flexible and part time work – one that sees flexible work as a firm-wide opportunity, not just a means for assisting women with children.
As former lawyer and Equal Opportunity Workplace Agency director Helen Conway told an audience last week, it’s a shift in the acceptability of men accessing flexible work arrangements that will really aid women in reaching senior leadership positions.
This will be a great challenge for the legal profession. Are male lawyers in a position to really put their hand up for part time work, while also seeking to progress their careers?
Not without a change in thinking and a shift that comes from the top down and sees men in leadership positions supporting those working flexibly below them, and demonstrating the value of flexible work themselves.
Some law firms have set targets in a bid to raise their ratio of women partners over the next few years. This is a great start. A further step would be to set ambitious yet realistic goals for the number of lawyers and partners working part time – men and women included.