Women now outnumber men in the legal profession in all states and territories across Australia, a major reversal in an industry once dominated by men.
But as Her Lawyer founder Courtney Bowie tells Women’s Agenda, this now female-dominated profession has a continued pipeline problem. Men still far outnumber women at the partnership level, while women are increasingly leaving large firms for in-house roles and to start their own practices.
Women likewise dominate in the community legal sector accounting for 71% of solicitors; in government (68%) and across in-house roles (60%).
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Having left corporate law life to start her own firm, Bowie understands the appeal for women to branch out independently, saying she “just couldn’t see a future” for herself in the large practices.
“If I couldn’t’ find work-life balance at the age of 22, how was I going to find it at the age of 35, when you’re more senior and you might possibly have a partner and kids?” she queries. “I had all the time for work back in my early twenties and it still wasn’t enough.”
And, according to Bowie, it isn’t just the unreasonable expectation on work hours that leaves corporate law in the dark ages, but the rampant gender bias, prejudice and stereotyping that prohibits a level playing field for women.
During Bowie’s time working at a big law firm, she recalls a partner who was renowned for checking that the women working in the firm were wearing high heels.
“Wearing flat shoes instead of high heels would see your commitment and ambition questioned,” she says.
Now, as the successful founder of Her Lawyer — a firm which seeks to support and represent female-owned business — Bowie regularly convenes with other women who have made similar transitions.
“They have that moment where they say, you know this is not going to work for me. I’m going to do this on my own, that way I can create something that actually works with my life, rather than compete with my life”, she says.
The Law Society stats show that as of October 2020, there were 16,393 private law practices in Australia, slightly down from 2018 with the vast majority (82%) being sole practitioners or law practices with one principal. There are just 71 law practices with more than 21 principals across Australia. Female solicitors continue to remain, on average, younger than their male counterparts, with a median age of 38 compared with the male median age of 46.
Women start firms, then face a new set of challenges
With women starting their own law practices and delivering services in new and innovative ways, Bowie highlights the new challenges that emerge: competing for new talent to grow the business.
She points to paid parental leave as an example, with a slew of major employers able to offer highly attractive packages, like the 26 weeks for all new parents that KPMG recently announced.
Is it reasonable to expect small firms to compete on policies like this? Are women missing out on beneficial careers at smaller firms because of these barriers?
“Small firms have other opportunities to show their credentials for creating great opportunities,” says Bowie. “But on paid parental leave, small firms can’t afford to do nothing.
“We need to consider the cost of unfilled seats and of replacing staff who leave to go to a firm that does offer those benefits. One option could be in creating a scaled approach to paid parental leave, as the firm grows” she says, noting that such costs can be up to 45% of an annual wage.
She believes smaller firms may have opportunities to show a commitment to gender equality that large firms are unable or unwilling to match, particularly through a meaningful commitment to remote and flexible work.
This flexibility must be intentionally created, which may mean overhauling and completely redesigning existing systems and processes.
“Flexible work should be commonplace, everywhere. We need to stop treating those who access in a real way as ‘special’”, she says.
Traditionally, many big firms have rejected significant moves to remote work, with some law firms even insisting staff work in offices during Victoria’s COVID-19 outbreak.
But still, much has changed. Even some of the largest firms look set to continue with hybrid work weeks and are looking at how to downsize their office space as a result.
Once again, it may pose a challenge to smaller firms aiming to compete through their flexible offerings.
“I also believe these small firms can compete for this talent by getting the value alignment piece right,” says Bowie. “It’s not just about having a set of company values, but actually living those values and expressing them in how you work.”
“Also essential, will be how firms maintain a workplace culture in an online environment,” she says. “And how they ensure that staff have access to the same opportunities working remotely, as they would have working physically. Not all firms will get that right. You need to be absolutely intentional to make it happen.”
Bowie also takes aim at the billable hour — something she calls “lazy business”— which is still used by most large law firms today. The measure requires lawyers to bill in six-minute increments.
“I just don’t think that works for women, and so many of us are seeing there are other ways. Billable hours are not conducive to work life balance or for juggling caring responsibilities when you are expected to bill a clear eight hours a day,” she says.
“We can’t now let it become a lazy way of promoting flexible and remote work by claiming that you can measure the direct output of staff working from home.
“Why not innovate the business model, operations and process, and come up with something more clever?”
This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.