A recent roundtable of successful female lawyers has confirmed that women in law are very attracted to the idea of beginning their own practice when they start a family.

It was agreed unanimously by the rounbdtable participants that rather than waiting for significant sectoral or cultural change, the best way to empower women was for them to do it themselves. A high proportion of sole practitioners and small law firms are run by women to allow themselves the flexibility to manage a career and home life successfully.

Given the difficulties in accessing the partnership pipeline, it was easier and more successful for women to establish their own firms. 

Convened by leading champion and advocate for the small law industry LEAP, roundtable participants concluded that while there is no quick fix for empowering women in law, every opportunity must be explored to do so including breaking:

  • The mindset that I did it tough coming up through the ranks, so should you
  • A perception that women just aren’t as smart as men
  • The culture that women must work twice as hard as men to prove their worth
  • The notion that women not men are the primary care givers which is embedded in our culture, and
  • That having children and taking maternity leave stalls career growth.

The roundtable also considered whether the legal profession makes sufficient effort to make the workplace fit for purpose for women to enable them to achieve their ambitions.

Participants were encouraged to share experiences, identify current challenges and ‘re-imagine’ what the ideal workplace should look like. They also felt that strategies that would enhance female empowerment include:

  • Building realistic expectations for law graduates
  • Mentoring
  • Blue sky thinking, and
  • Men championing change and being proactively involved in the solution.

“In addition, late last year LEAP surveyed nearly 800 Small Law professionals to gain their insights and predictions for Small Law. Part of that survey asked respondents if they believed that a higher percentage of women will achieve senior roles in 2019 than did in 2018,” added LEAP chief executive Ms Donna Broadley.

“Surprisingly, 77.53% of respondents, evenly split between male and female, believe that a higher percentage of women will achieve more senior roles in 2019 compared to 2018. However, while all respondents believed that roles should be merit-based, and promotions a result of competence rather than gender, it was widely acknowledged that sometimes “a boys’ club prevails,” she added.

Both roundtable participants and survey respondents generally welcomed affirmative action including partner quotas, though quotas are not seen as the complete panacea for achieving gender equity.

In fact, while some see the increased empowerment and confidence of women is encouraging them to seek more senior roles, many feel the public push for equality is mechanical.

A perceived ‘clash’ between work and family commitments was raised by many as a key barrier to the advancement of female lawyers in senior roles from both an organisational and a female’s perspective. There was a strong sentiment that for a female lawyer to achieve a senior role she must either put off having a family or return to work very soon after giving birth to prove her commitment to her organisation.

Interestingly, there was widespread recognition that while the workplace must do all it can to encourage greater gender equity, it is imperative that parents also influence their children from an early age as to how boys and girls should behave as messages around gender roles are ingrained in the language we use, the images on TV, in storybooks and in the types of games children play.

“In conclusion, it was agreed that enhancing empowerment of women and achieving equality in the legal profession requires commitment and long-term thinking. The survey results and the roundtable confirm that progress is being made.  In fact, LEAP is a good case in point. Our executive team is made up almost entirely of women who have been appointed purely on merit.

However, it will take a sustained cultural shift across the whole profession and will involve everyone from parents and educational institutions to firms, the judiciary and clients to advocate and agitate for change.” Ms Broadley concluded.

Access the report from the roundtable via link below:

www.leap.com.au/resources/advancing-women-in-the-legal-profession

Roundtable participants

Dr Alana Maurushat

Professor in Cyber Security and Behaviour, Dean’s Unit School of Social Sciences & Psychology

Janya Eighani

Principal Lehman Walsh Lawyers, a specialist Start-up and General Corporate Law practice.

Rose Dravitzki

Head of Chambers at Clarence, Workplaces for Lawyers

Facilitator Ms Roni Millard

General Manager Marketing LEAP

Survey methodology

The LEAP Small Law Industry Index was conducted in November 2018 by surveying over 750 small law firms across the country.