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Cite as: (2007) 81(6) LIJ, p. 92


Leaving the law

Professional organisations must undertake further research into why so many lawyers cease practising.

There is a heavy investment required in both time and effort to enter the legal profession.

Lawyers need to work hard for entrance to law school at university. Once at university, it is at least three years of study followed by a year’s articles or practical legal training before signing the Supreme Court roll.

And once at work, their firms invest in them by spending large amounts of money on training and development.

This investment does not pay dividends for the legal profession if people leave the law after a few years. Yet, anecdotally, that is what is happening; and it’s not a problem confined to female lawyers.

In court recently I overheard a male solicitor tell a colleague “I want to get out of law”. The other male solicitor said “Yeah, me too. I told my fiancée before she accepted the proposal that I would not be a lawyer forever”. The other male solicitor said “Me too”. They were both in their mid-30s.

Victoria University lecturer in gender studies Dr Karina Smith said that research on men’s lives had identified work/life balance to be a problem for men as they are often taught that there is only one way of being male – i.e. competitive, work-oriented, unemotional etc.

Flexible work practices are a means to an end for an employer, with that end being staff loyalty, staff retention and bottom line profits.

While the term “flexible work practices” is mostly used in the context of retaining women lawyers who have young children, that is now changing.

Due to the “high churn” rate of young lawyers, the competitive international job market in the UK and US for lawyers, and the nature of Generation Y (who have been described as “soft” with their need to have a life), flexible work practices are important to retain both men and women.

And this includes the part-time retirees of federal Treasurer Peter Costello’s fashioning, who may work a few days in law, spend a day on the golf course, take a three day weekend, etc.

Any stigma attached to having a work/life balance has to disappear for lawyers to contemplate the pursuit of legal careers to retirement age.

The numbers of women solicitors decline well before retirement age – women under 40 comprise 56 per cent of the profession, dwindling to 25 per cent for women over 40, and after age 40, the number of women practising halves, and at the 50-year mark it halves again.[1] 

The Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) 2006 report Bendable or Expendable: Practices and attitudes towards work flexibility in Victoria’s biggest legal employers[2] looked at flexible work practices and some attitudes towards retention in an effort to pinpoint some of the reasons for this decline.

In 1998, the Victorian Bar Council commissioned Rosemary Hunter and Helen McKelvie’s Equality of Opportunity for Women at the Victorian Bar report which included interviews with women who left the Bar before 1998.

One of the key findings was that women were leaving the Bar earlier and in larger numbers than men before retirement age.

In April this year, the Victorian Bar and the Women Barristers Association each committed to being an industry partner for a research project to be undertaken by Victoria University. It will involve interviews with men and women who have left the Bar since 1998 to ascertain reasons for leaving and will also involve interviews with barristers at the Bar to evaluate current Bar and WBA initiatives which seek to retain and advance barristers in the profession.

Following on from these pieces of research, there now needs to be a study into why men and women leave the law completely, and whether there is anything the profession could have done to stop them from leaving.

It is only by undertaking this research that we can find out what more can be done to keep lawyers in the profession.

We need to find out now why lawyers leave the law before retirement age.

This will require interviewing lawyers who have signed the Supreme Court roll but who cease active practice before retirement age

While it is a big undertaking, it will pay dividends.

Burnout, lack of flexibility, the need to have a life, the wish to pursue other dreams (such as to start a business of one’s own) may explain why some have left.

Some study law without intending to ever practise law or for very long at all.[3] 

For those who start practising law and then leave, the question as to their original intentions could be asked to find out how many people leave who never intended to practise compared with those who intended to keep practising.

It is only by finding out why people leave the law that we will know what precisely the profession is not delivering to its legal professionals.


SIMONE JACOBSON is a barrister and convenor of the Women Barristers Association.


[1] See introduction of LIV and Victorian Women Lawyers report, Bendable or Expendable: Practices and attitudes towards work flexibility in Victoria’s biggest legal employers, June 2006, http://www.liv.asn.au/members/hr/manage/manage-Research.html

[2] Note 1 above.

[3] See “Law & (the new) order”, The Age, 16 April 2007.

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