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According to Merit?: Toolkit for flexibility

Every Issue

Cite as: March 2015 89 (3) LIJ, p.82

There are examples of successful flexible work arrangements in all areas of private practice.

Victorian Women Lawyers (VWL) is a voluntary association that promotes and protects the interests of women lawyers and engages with legal and social justice issues that affect women. VWL has, over a number of years, conducted research and published reports relevant to these issues.

One of these, the 2005 report “A 360° Review: Flexible Work Practices: Confronting myths and realities in the legal profession” (http://tinyurl.com/l8dg8qa) found that while offering flexible work arrangements was an important way to support women lawyers, such arrangements would be more successful if adequately supported and managed by firms.

In 2010 VWL’s Work Practices Committee decided that the management of flexible work arrangements was an area that needed further examination. Managers and partners from 10 of VWL’s sponsor firms attended three separate workshops and helped identify issues associated with managing lawyers on flexible work arrangements. As a result, VWL developed and published a comprehensive set of protocols together with a booklet “Do you manage: A guide to managing lawyers with flexible work arrangements” (http://tinyurl.com/ovxqwps) to assist firms to plan for, and resolve issues related to, requests for flexible work arrangements. These protocols dealt with issues such as flexible working arrangements, working part-time and remotely, job-sharing and parental leave. In this way, it was hoped that lawyers needing to work flexibly would be better supported and firms would benefit from retaining quality staff. The booklet and protocols became valuable resources, available on the VWL website (http://tinyurl.com/p2pp3uo) to be accessed by those within the legal profession looking for tools to help women remain in the workforce.

Fast forward to 2015 and VWL finds that many of these issues confronting women in the legal profession continue, seemingly unabated. The Law Council of Australia (LCA) recently expressed concern that “although women are graduating with law degrees and entering legal careers at higher rates than men, significantly fewer women continue into senior positions within the legal profession” (http://tinyurl.com/lhlj4am). This sentiment followed the publication of the National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS) Report (http://tinyurl.com/nzlegbl) in 2014.

The NARS Report was the first national study of its kind in Australia and examined quantitative and qualitative data collected in relation to women leaving the legal profession and their rates of return after absences, mainly due to child bearing and rearing responsibilities. The report found “significant gaps in diversity in more senior roles in the legal profession”. It suggested that while a range of flexible working arrangements might be available for women, taking them up could have a negative impact on their prospects for career progression. Particularly in larger private firms, study participants reported several negative impacts resulting from their participation in flexible working arrangements, such as being allocated unsatisfying work, being passed by for promotion, and dealing with colleagues’ assumptions that because they had accessed flexible working arrangements, they were less serious about their careers. The report highlighted the need for workplaces to not only provide, but actively support flexible work practices for both men and women.

The NARS Report also found that almost one in three female lawyers expressed dissatisfaction with opportunities to access mentors to support their career development. Even where mentoring opportunities were available, they were not generally seen to be adequate or appropriate for them.

The report recommended that senior leaders and decision makers actively and effectively mentor and sponsor lawyers at earlier stages of their career, and that lawyers, in turn, develop and foster relationships to support their career progression by participating in sponsorship and mentoring programs with experienced lawyers.

In response to the NARS report, VWL’s Work Practices Committee decided it was timely to not only update its flexibility protocols, but to develop an additional protocol to support the application of mentoring and sponsorship arrangements for women lawyers.

It is clear that an engaging and responsive workplace is crucial to the retention of women in legal practice. There are examples of successful flexible work arrangements in all areas of private practice, including the traditionally difficult areas of transactional work and litigation. Such arrangements need to be the norm.

VWL’s newly rebadged “Work Practices Toolkit” will help implement arrangements that work for all those involved: the lawyer, the partner and the firm. We strongly encourage partners and managers to embrace the assistance provided in the toolkit. It will be launched early in 2015.


MARY LOUISE HATCH and JO BOWERS are co-chairs of Victorian Women Lawyers’s Work Practices Committee.

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