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According to Merit: Pro bono imbalance

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Cite as: Jan/Feb 2011 85(1/2) LIJ, p.82

Women leading the way in providing pro bono legal services is another example of gender imbalance in the profession.

Under-representation of women at partnership level appears as one of the most frequent news results if one Googles “number”, “women” and “lawyers” as I did in researching this article.

However, the dominance of women in the community legal sector and in pro bono work in general represents another gender imbalance in the legal profession.

In 2007, the National Pro Bono Resource Centre (NPBRC) produced a report, Mapping Pro Bono in Australia, which noted that women made up 80 per cent of those working in New South Wales community legal centres (CLCs).1 Exact gender statistics are not available for the Victorian community legal sector, but there is evidence to suggest consistency with the NSW trends.

The 2008-2009 annual reports from a small sample of diverse CLCs – Fitzroy Legal Service, Springvale-Monash Legal Service and the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre – showed that about two-thirds to four-fifths of paid staff were female. In general, when conducting research on the make-up of CLCs, women appear to be well represented at senior levels, with gender dominance often favouring women rather than men. This is in contrast to private firms.

In terms of volunteering, 86 out of the 108 legal inquiry volunteers at the Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH) in the past financial year were female. In the 2008 financial year, 62 out of 77 PILCH volunteers were female. At the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in January last year, 53 out of 67 lawyers and legal volunteers were women.

The gender statistics appear more balanced when lawyers provide pro bono as part of their firm’s pro bono commitment. For example, out of the nine PILCH secondee lawyers selected by their firms to spend over three months working at PILCH in the 2009 financial year, only four were female.

Out of the 14 firms that provided gender statistics in the NPBRC’s 2009 Pro Bono Practices Guide,2 10 reported a fairly even gender balance in their pro bono providers. Three of the remaining four reported a pro bono provision ratio of 80:20, 60:40 and 59:41 respectively in favour of women. The remaining firm reported that men exclusively provided pro bono work in its firm.3

Interestingly, in one firm where the gender balance was about 50:50, the firm reported that it was women who did 66.4 per cent of the pro bono work. In another firm where the gender balance was even, 58 per cent of the lawyers providing at least 20 or more hours of pro bono work were women.

And the Victorian responses to the 2007 national pro bono survey undertaken by the NPBRC indicated that women constituted 68 per cent of the surveyed lawyers undertaking pro bono at their firm.

It is possible that the imbalance in favour of women in the “office hours” pro bono data may be slightly skewed by the fact that women are more heavily concentrated in the junior ranks of law firms.

The Victorian NPBRC data shows that it is mostly lawyers with less than five years of post-admission experience who undertake pro bono. However, this does not account for women volunteers or CLC workers.

So what is it in particular that attracts women, rather than men, to pro bono or volunteering work?

In terms of employment in the community legal sector, it was suggested to me that women are attracted to the lifestyle, family-friendly environment and social conscience at CLCs. However, to explain pro bono done by non-employees in addition to work duties, surely a sense of civic duty cannot be the sole reason why women rather than men undertake pro bono on a more frequent basis.

One reason could be that women lawyers, like other women, have been conditioned to consider their contribution to their workplace or to society in general in non-monetary terms.

It is still true today that women perform the majority of unpaid work, whether that be domestic or caring work. Therefore, one conclusion may be that while men may be more likely to evaluate their career in regards to linear upward mobility and pro bono as a variable to juggle in this upward progression, women are more likely to view pro bono as enhancing their professional development.

This is supported by the NPBRC Pro Bono Practices data, which tends to show that the gender balance of law firm pro bono providers becomes more even when pro bono hours are incorporated into billable hours budgets and performance appraisals.

While a myriad other reasons must exist, space in this article does not permit discussion of them. What is clear is that women’s contribution to pro bono and the community legal sector is important – and like other unpaid work, must be recognised and lauded.



Solicitor AKANE KANAI is co-chair of the Victorian Women Lawyers’ Law Reform Committee for 2011.

1. See www.nationalprobono.org.au/home.asp for all NPBRC resources referred to in this article.

2. The Pro Bono Practices Guide surveyed 30 Australian law firms and their pro bono practices.

3. Both firms that reported a heavy gender imbalance were fairly small. The firm where pro bono providers were 80 per cent women had 11 partners and 42 lawyers and the firm where the pro bono providers were all men had eight partners and 11 lawyers at the time the NPBRC guide was published.

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