An HR-led webinar in May on the topic of our annual end of financial year development reviews encouraged us, as lawyers, to consider what we ought to be asking our supervising partners at review time.
“What should I keep doing?” was encouraged, presumably in an attempt to elicit some positive feedback in what is often a rather negative experience. Reviews very often revolve around what we aren’t doing well, how far off our target budgets we were, how excessive our write-offs are and how much more more business development we should be undertaking.
This question – ‘What should I keep doing’ – led me down an existential path in the days and weeks following the webinar. My contemplation evolved to a different question. Why should I keep doing it?
Why should I continue to be a lawyer in private practice?
I am a 38 year old woman. I was admitted as a solicitor 11 years ago, and I am still at lawyer level in my career.
I am also a single-parent and sole carer of two school-aged children. I had my first child whilst I was in the middle of law school and, since my admission to practice, have only ever worked part-time. I am the full time equivalent of approximately 5 years post qualification experience.
Law was my second degree and, after the birth of my second child, I also went on to complete a Master of Laws. My HECS debt currently sits at $84,652.15. Since my first child I haven’t earned above the debt repayment threshold and therefore each year the debt increases (as it is indexed). It looks unlikely to decrease anytime soon, let alone be paid off completely.
It is fantastic that women are now educated at equal and higher rates as men in Australia but it is what is happening afterwards, women’s experiences in paid employment, that is still so demoralising.
Law firms are in the business of selling knowledge and time and the profession is inherently geared towards rewarding and promoting those who are able to bill the most. All lawyers are familiar with these concepts: the more you are able to bill or the more work you are able to generate for the firm then the better chance you have at career success.
This model is flawed and particularly difficult for someone like myself. I work part-time and my responsibilities outside of work are considerable.
I cannot compete on the same playing field as a person who has the ability to work extra hours, unencumbered by any responsibilities at home, to do the networking required in our profession and to be able to focus on doing the job, mostly to the exclusion of all else.
The fact of the matter is that my disproportionately high burden of care means I can’t do that. It makes progressing and prospering in this type of workplace very difficult.
I have been overlooked for promotion, possibly because I do work flexibly and therefore may not not considered to be a “real player”. I considered looking for more “female-friendly” – a term I deeply despise – work. Why does “female-friendly” even exist as a concept? Can’t employment just be inclusive?
The reality is that parenthood turns women into less ideal employees. Not being able to commit every minute of every day to work is a problem in private practice. But I’d argue that parents, mostly mothers, exiting private practice because of this isn’t an acceptable solution.
Private practice loses so many great female lawyers because the playing field is so uneven. If more men were able to “lean out” and able to also become ‘less ideal’ employees because of visible caring responsibilities space would be made for women.
Why did I stick at a game I knew I couldn’t win for so long? Why did I send my CV to potential employers with a covering letter assuring them “my family is complete now” (so, God forbid, they don’t get worried I will run off and have more children)? Why did I wear an old wedding band to job interviews so as to not look unemployable as a husbandless mother seeking part-time work?
When I dug a little deeper I realised that I did these things, whilst seemingly not getting anywhere, because I didn’t want to be shunted off to different roles just because it was easier for my career to be redirected rather than make the career I already had easier for me to stay in.
I stuck at it because I wanted younger women to see that a long lasting career in the law in private practice as a parent was attainable. And desirable. If they saw it then they would hopefully believe it and stick at it themselves and then we could potentially see real change.
I couldn’t see that change: I could see a lot of male partners with children and thriving careers but very few women. I hated thinking about the highly skilled and highly capable women who had resigned from private practice. But I realised I had to join them. I became one of those women.
In an attempt to provide flexible work, I was employed on a casual basis. Casualisation of the workforce is another problem, particularly for women, as we forego secure work in our attempt to work flexibly. Unfortunately, most of the time I was actually just so grateful to even be employed as a female lawyer that I subjugated most of these feelings.
These are universal problems and certainly not confined to my individual experience nor even to my industry. But law firms, and the profession, need to do better.
After my reflections here are a few ideas:
- Being clear about how they will support females to senior roles, possibly by using quotas, and make sure these senior roles are attainable and desirable;
- Think of women as investments rather than liabilities;
- Offering the same parental leave for all parents and actively encouraging male lawyers to take the parental leave;
- Stop framing flexible working as a benefit and make it an integral part of the culture;
- Encourage and incentivise men to take strategic approaches to being inclusive;
- Actively encourage and promote men working flexibly and consciously attempt to de-stigmatise parental leave and flexible working;
- Support men – at all levels – to contribute to a greater share of caring responsibilities;
- Break down and remove cultural and structural barriers of the firm which prevent women from attaining seniority and have influenced them to instead leave private practice or the profession entirely; and
- Get educated about the profound benefits equity, diversity and inclusion bring to the productivity, culture and philosophy of a firm and to the profession. Not just lip service.
My hope is that more men acknowledge the inequality women face and are prepared to be part of the major shifts necessary at work and at home to achieve equity.