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Who are you?

Who are you?

By Karin Derkley

Legal Biography Occupations 

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A new survey of solicitors has found that the law is shaking off its traditional image as a male-dominated profession of private practitioners.

The profile of the typical solicitor is changing, a national survey of the profession has found – with women lawyers now outnumbering men, a growing number of older solicitors and an increasing number of solicitors shifting to the corporate sector.

Most solicitors are still to be found in private practice in Victoria, with 64 per cent working in the sector, the National Profile of Solicitors 2016 commissioned by the Law Society of NSW found. Most work either as sole practitioners, who represent 27.2 per cent of solicitors in Victoria, or in big firms with 40 partners or more, where 27.6 per cent of the state’s solicitors work. But smaller firms with two to four partners experienced the biggest increase in solicitor numbers, with a 23.1 per cent increase in lawyers since 2011.

Solicitors in Victoria are most likely to be working in Melbourne’s CBD. But there has been a 60 per cent increase in the numbers working in suburban law firms since 2011. More than 1500 solicitors work in Victoria’s regional areas.

Victoria had a slightly higher proportion of women lawyers than the national average, with 9234 women making up 50.9 per cent of the state’s 18,144 solicitors, compared to 50.1 per cent of the total across the nation.

Gender balance is more likely in city firms than in country or suburban firms, with women representing 51 per cent of city solicitors, compared to 49.6 per cent for suburban and 47.5 per cent for country firms. But young women are making incursions into country firms, representing 64.3 per cent of those rural lawyers who have been admitted for less than five years.

Women represent only 25% of partners.

Despite the dominance of private practice, the numbers of solicitors choosing to go over to the corporate world is fast increasing – with a 59.4 per cent increase in the number of in-house lawyers since 2011.

Many are women, who now represent 57.2 per cent of those working in the sector nationally. Government lawyers also tend to be women, representing 63.9 per cent of the sector, a contrast with the private sector where they make up just over 45 per cent of legal staff, and still represent only 25 per cent of partners.

The move from the private sector to in-house roles within government and the corporate world is likely to continue. A recent Mahlab report has found evidence of increasing fluidity between the sectors, with senior private practice lawyers joining in-house teams of specialists rather than waiting in the queue for partnerships, junior lawyers turning to government or consulting roles, and partners taking the CEO pathway as a viable alternative.

One finding that perhaps should not be surprising given the ageing workforce is the increase in the number of older solicitors. There are 4689 lawyers above the traditional retirement age of 65 in Victoria – up 23 per cent since 2011. An even bigger spike can be found in the number of lawyers aged 70-74, which has increased 42.6 per cent in the past two years.

Rosannah Healy

Partner, Allens

In her early 30s and working in a large CBD law firm, competition and consumer lawyer Rosannah Healy embodies the typical solicitor in Victoria. Ms Healy is atypical in some ways though – she became a partner at the beginning of July and is one of just 25 per cent of partners in Victoria who are women. As the mother of a toddler, she is also one of the relatively small proportion of partners who works part-time – she works four days a week and aims to get out the door by 5.30pm most days to pick up her son. She says the firm encourages a family-friendly workplace, but a supportive family and her semi-autonomy as a partner helps too.

“You have to be very organised and very efficient to make sure you can meet all your clients’ needs as well as your own, but I find that clients are understanding and all the partners in my team are parents too, so they all get it,” she says.

The Melbourne Law School alumna did her clerkship at Allens, feeling that a big law firm would be the best springboard for her career. After finding her passion in competition and consumer law in her first year as a lawyer at the firm, she has never looked back. By 2012 she was a senior associate, and three years later she graduated to managing associate.

“Being at Allens gives me access to very high quality, interesting and cutting-edge work,” she says. “And I love that when you’re working on a tricky issue you can always find a colleague who is an expert to work it through with you.”

Ms Healy is optimistic about the impact of technology on the law, and believes important advisory work will never be eclipsed by technology. “Technology means doing less grunt work and freeing up lawyers to do creative complex difficult thinking – they’ll never automate that.”

Delighted to hear that the profession has now achieved gender equality in terms of numbers coming into the profession, Ms Healy says she would also like to see greater diversity in terms of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. “The more diversity there is in a firm the better – the more diversity there is in the way people think, the better your team is able to relate to clients. Plus a diverse workplace is just a nicer place to work.” She has been involved in working groups to look at ways of increasing diversity at the recruitment stage, but is mindful that the same diversity has to be reflected at the higher echelons of the law as well.

Sidney Mendis

Principal solicitor, Mendis & Gibson Lawyers

Suburban lawyer Sidney Mendis is 67 and says he has no plans to retire “as long as my health is good”. Originally from Sri Lanka where he practised as a barrister until he came to Australia in 2006, Mr Mendis says he does “everything: commercial, criminal, family law and property law – when people in this area have a legal problem they come to see me and I help them”.

Part of a growing cohort of older lawyers in Victoria, Mr Mendis believes he is a better lawyer after 30 years of practice than when he was younger. “Earlier on, I had a lot of hot blood and liked to be a hero, always wanting to win. But now I am more like a father – I counsel people and say let’s look at this the right way. If you can, it is better to settle and do without the pressure of a litigation trial.”

People skills are more valuable than knowing every last thing about the law, he says. “It’s not so difficult if you don’t know the particular area of the law. You can always hire a special counsel – but you can’t buy people skills. These days, after interviewing them for 45 minutes I can understand a client’s character and nature and what they need.” Mr Mendis is unfazed by technology even though there were no computers when he started in the law. “Technology saves me time and helps me do my work better,” he says. “It used to take me four hours to draft a contract, now it takes me 30-45 minutes. That gives me more time to talk to my clients.” Even so, he believes technology will affect future demand for lawyers – especially in regards to smaller scale matters that he says people will increasingly manage on their own using online tools. But lawyers who deal with more complex commercial and corporate matters will survive, he believes.

He’s also happy to see the shift to a more gender balanced profession. At the moment his law firm of three is dominated by men after a female lawyer moved interstate. But he would prefer more women in the firm. “Women are very good at talking to clients, good with technology and have a good eye for detail in drafting contracts.”

Solicitors in Victoria are most likely to be working in Melbourne’s CBD.

Iresha Herath

General counsel and executive director, legal services, Western Health

Among a growing cohort of women working as corporate counsel, Iresha Herath got her entree to in-house life when she took a year’s leave of absence from her position as senior associate at King, Wood Mallesons to take up a role as ministerial adviser to Victorian Minister of Transport Peter Batchelor. When she wanted to return to work after maternity leave, she suspected working in the corporate world was more likely to offer her the flexibility she says law firms weren’t quite up with a decade ago.

“It was just after the GFC hit, and there weren’t many part-time positions available at my senior level,” she says. Transport Safety Victoria offered her a full-time in-house role but, keen to have her on board because of her infrastructure experience, agreed to her working a couple of days a week from home. “It made all the difference, in terms of being able to spend some time with my daughter when she was very young.”

Gender balance is more likely in city firms than in country or suburban firms.

Although she has since moved to a full-time office-based role on the executive team at Western Health, she says she is committed to promoting flexibility in the workplace. “All the women on my team work part-time and they do an extraordinary job,” she says. She is optimistic that the legal profession will support increasing diversity in the future, supported by enabling technologies and new ways of working that will be driven by client demand.

Supporting flexibility is also crucial for ensuring workplaces can draw from the broadest talent base, she says. “You can’t sustain a homogenous workforce in a gender diverse and culturally diverse society. If you continue to choose one particular type of person to be in these roles, you are vastly limiting your talent base – the same goes for saying you will only employ people full-time.” If flexibility is supported and you set clear expectations, people are likely to be more productive because they feel encouraged and trusted in that environment, she says.

 


Disclaimer: Views expressed by commentators are not necessarily endorsed by the Law Institute of Victoria Ltd (LIV). No responsibility is accepted by the LIV for the accuracy of information contained in the comments and the LIV expressly disclaims any liability for, with respect to or arising from any such views.

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