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Landmark study demands action


Cite as: May 2014 88 (05) LIJ, p.19

The National Attrition and Re-Engagement Study has provoked calls for gender reporting to be strengthened.

Law firms and legal groups have hailed the Law Council of Australia’s landmark study for its practical steps aimed at cutting the number of women who leave the legal profession.

The LCA’s National Attrition and Re-Engagement Study (NARS) found widespread inequity, harassment and discrimination in the profession.

Norton Rose Fulbright global head of diversity, partner Sally Macindoe said it would be a shame for the survey to be taken as negative. “I think it is a very positive step that the work has been done and the recommendations that have come out of it,” Ms Macindoe said.

“The challenge for the profession is to embed that, not just treat it as a piece of paper to pick up and put down again.”

Ms Macindoe said the findings are consistent with her firm’s 2009 staff survey about why it was losing women. That informed a strategy which has seen the number of women partners grow to 22 per cent, from just 9 per cent in 2005, when she joined the board, and 17 per cent in 2009 following informal mentoring and interventions.

“I think the most useful thing to do is measure and report effectively. You need to set informed targets that are capable of being achieved and monitor how you are going against them,” she said.

They included flexible work practices, mentoring and unconscious bias and inclusive leadership training for board members and executive partners.

Ms Macindoe is optimistic because “we have seen the positive change that has occurred since we started doing these things with senior partner support.

“You can set up all the plans and strategies in the world but if your leadership does not believe in it, it is not going to change.”

LCA director and Australian Bar Association vice-president Fiona McLeod SC said that unlike previous studies NARS is nationwide, covers solicitors and barristers, and includes men and women who have left practice.

She said numerous initiatives to address inequity have not created a profession women want to stay in. “What we want is for this report to be a catalyst.”

Ms McLeod said Urbis, which conducted the study, would steer it through consultation with the LCA’s constituent bodies and committees plus other interested members of the profession, to develop a strategic plan.

In the past, women had been asked to transform themselves – change child rearing and work practices, challenge inappropriate behaviour, even change their firms’ culture. “I suggest the work that needs to be done is not to fix the women . . . It is the profession that needs to adapt, expand and evolve,” she said.

The NARS report, which the LIV contributed to, was released as Herbert Smith Freehills announced a 30 per cent global gender balance target for women in partnerships by May 2019, and 25 per cent by May 2017.

The firm, with about 20 per cent women partners in its Australian office, aims to widen the talent pool from which partners are promoted. This would be strengthened by unconscious bias training, targeted career development, sponsorship and mentoring, plus monitoring gender indicators.

Other firms have also introduced targets with Slater & Gordon aiming for 50 per cent women in senior roles, including on the board, by 2020.

Freehills partner Jane Hodder, Australian head of diversity and inclusion, said the firm was heartened by the NARS report because it was “actively and diligently” undertaking a number of its recommendations – for example, a compulsory sexual harassment and bullying program and unconscious bias training for senior staff.

It did not have reintroduction training for women transitioning back from carer leave because staff had individual plans. There was “a bit to think about in terms of whether we should have a specific course”.

Ms Hodder said clear and accessible information in relation to the benchmarks required for promotion was “work in progress for us”. However, Freehills did have a potential partner development centre.

She said there was increasing pressure on law firms to look at alternative billing, although driven by clients’ budgets rather than workplace culture and gender targets.

LIV president Geoff Bowyer said this was key. The LIV had asked the Legal Services Board to fund an alternative billing program, to educate lawyers about alternatives to time costing and relying on scales.

“One of the issues is the endless hours on the clock do not necessarily equate to giving a client good value. This can affect a woman’s esteem and her standing in the firm.”

Mr Bowyer said the NARS report was largely unsurprising, other than the level of discrimination at the Bar, confirming previous studies’ findings and the LIV’s work with its members.

There was a particular need to act on unconscious bias in firms and through high school and law studies, said Mr Bowyer, who has undertaken such a program.

Justitia managing partner Mary-Jane Ierodiaconou agreed this was vital. “People who are making decisions about recruitment, promotion, training and partnership can be very conscious of their own decision-making processes, conscious they may be leaning towards favouring those who are like themselves,” she said.

“It is about the workplace culture and the systems of work we have,” Ms Ierodiaconou said. “Simply saying, this is the business case as to why we should keep women isn’t enough, the legal profession has known the business case for at least 15 years.”

Also, “one of the unconscious things that has held women and some men back, if you are working flexibly there is a very strong perception that that lawyer is not serious about their work.”

Ms Ierodiaconou welcomed the NARS report’s practical steps in areas such as role modelling and promoting diversity. “I think a lot of legal workplaces do want to change but they are not quite sure how.”

“The legal profession has been slow to embrace cultural change and I hope that this report is a catalyst for the changes we need to make. I think it is going to contribute to the conversation but I don’t think it is going to be an overnight solution.”

Australian Women Lawyers (AWL) believes the recommendations encourage a re-examination of traditional practices – working hours, billing, recruitment and selection processes and leadership. AWL national president Amy Challans said: “It is imperative that firms set a culture of zero tolerance regarding discriminatory behaviour including the creation of an environment where employees are empowered to call the behaviours and it is safe to report”.

As it was released, women’s organisations reacted sceptically to the federal government’s plan to ease gender reporting requirements. It is reportedly changing the requirement that businesses with more than 500 employees report on their gender make-up to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.(See “Gender equality– the employer’s obligation” page 38).

Meanwhile, Ms Hodder said male champions of the business case for gender diversity would also help firms realise this was a major business issue.

Reluctance to change was ill-informed, with more women in general counsel and senior roles: “If people close their eyes to ideas the world will pass them by and they will be left behind.”


NARS recommendations

  • Review qualifications to practice
  • Promote flexible work practices
  • Engage with individuals taking career breaks and support their return to work
  • Explore alternative billing models
  • Encourage work /life balance
  • Provide guidance about working hours, performance and pay
  • Address conscious and unconscious bias
  • Nurture and promote potential leaders
  • Encourage organisations to see gender diversity as a way to harness talent and reduce costs
  • Improve visibility of women lawyers
  • Raise awareness of ways to successfully achieve gender equity and diversity
  • Help lawyers develop and cultivate relationships to support their career progression
  • Provide guidance to lawyers to support their career progression
  • Combat bullying and sexual harassment
  • Monitor and publicise gender equity statistics in the profession
  • Employ internal measures to improve rates of attrition and leadership across the profession

What is being done about gender imbalance in the profession


The LIV promotes professional progression for women through events, submissions, surveys and reports, policy guidelines, CPD offerings and dialogue on the issue. Initiatives include:

Developing a national voluntary diversity code in 2014 for the legal profession whereby employers opt in to report and be measured.

Events including a re-energise your career series, a re-launch your career conference “The all or nothing myth” discussion which looked at the reality of being a working parent, the quarterly President’s lunch and the annual LIV-Victorian Women Lawyers (VWL) Dame Roma Mitchell memorial lunch featuring high profile woman speakers. See Justice Linda Dessau on page 12.

Practice support including LIVGender which educates and supports practitioners in this area, including online.

Contributing to the 2012 Changing the Rules report by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, which examined the experience of Victorian women lawyers.

Hosting a Diversity Roundtable with law firms. It developed strategies to increase and promote diversity in the legal profession and led to diversity consultations with law firms.

LIJ coverage of the issues in briefs, news, editorials and legal features. The Work in Progress page showcases flexible work options, the According to Merit? column examines gender issues and a mentoring column profiling successful lawyer partnerships will launch in 2014.

CPD on the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012. Also, online CPD modules for compliance relating to equal opportunity and sexual harassment at work.

A diversity taskforce was set up for members of the profession to discuss diversity issues, including those directly related to gender.

Mentoring opportunities for practitioners via an LIV-managed list.

Training developed to show practitioners how to identify and manage unconscious bias; also resourcing and training on alternative pricing models in development.

Victorian Women Lawyers

VWL promotes and protects the interests of women in the legal profession. It provides a network for information exchange, social interaction and continuing education and reform within the legal profession and broader community. VWL has undertaken research into work practice issues affecting women in the legal profession, and provided protocols, training and advocacy to effect change. Its initiatives include:

VWL undertook further research into barriers to implementing and managing flexible work practices. It launched Do You Manage?: a guide to managing lawyers with flexible work arrangements.

VWL has also worked with law firms to increase understanding around this issue. It has published protocols relating to part-time work, flexible hours, job sharing and working from home.

In 2013, VWL conducted a survey of members which asked questions relating to issues raised by the Australian Human Rights Commission as it conducted a national review on pregnancy and return to work following parental leave.

In future, VWL will revise and relaunch Do You Manage? to reflect recent changes and research in the profession, and specifically taking the NARS findings regarding flexible work practices into account.

It will prepare a protocol regarding sponsorship and mentoring – key areas of discussion in the NARS report – and work with sponsor and supportive firms to consider their experience with issues raised and ongoing work in this area. VWL will join the LIV in its research into childcare this year.

Victorian Bar

In November 2013, the Victorian Bar Council adopted ‘The Quantum Leap’, a package of measures designed to support the retention of women at the Bar and address the reasons they leave the Bar. It centres on a seven-point plan:

A Bar Barometer to measure numbers of women at the Bar and their comparative earnings by seniority and area of practice. The document will be collated annually in July.

The Silks’ Undertaking – a pledge to commit to actions promoting equality and diversity. The aim is to improve the income and experience of women juniors by encouraging the briefing of women in significant cases.

An Unconscious Bias program – bias awareness training to be delivered across the Bar.

Culture change – Formal and informal mechanisms for reporting bullying, harassment and discrimination. These include new professional conduct rules which proscribe this behaviour, new guidelines addressing bullying and the appointment of conciliators.

A new mentoring program – available for women at key career milestones of two years, seven years and pre-silk.

Re-engagement roundtables to maintain contact and support for women on career breaks, with a practicalities roundtable lunch hosted quarterly by senior women barristers for those on leave.

Voluntary exit surveys of counsel and judges by email to understand the drivers of attrition of women at the Bar and identify factors to help retain women at the Bar.


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