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According to merit?/Diversity: 2020 – From vision to revelation

According to merit?/Diversity: 2020 – From vision to revelation

By Gemma Hannah and Jyoti Haikerwal

Diversity Workplace 

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Leaders in the law have been forced to make swift and decisive workplace changes that will have long-term benefits.

2020 vision was a term we heard a lot at the start of this year. However, with the many challenges 2020 has delivered, the phrase no longer has a hopeful undertone with this year teaching us some important lessons.

Within the legal profession, some workplaces have held onto traditional ways of practice and have been reluctant to embrace flexible working arrangements, advances in technology and wellbeing. While there has been much discussion, it has not been at a rate sufficient to promote meaningful cultural change.

However, with the sudden health crisis, leaders in the law have been forced to make swift and decisive workplace changes to ensure their business or organisation’s future remained viable. 

A trait lawyers are known for is persistence so we worked with what we had. Months after the pandemic hit, the perception of working from home has changed for the better. While flexible and remote legal work was largely stigmatised as a “women’s issue”, many legal workplaces have embraced this new way of working, recognising the benefits it offers to employers and all lawyers.

Recognising that hindsight is 20/20, working from home has given us a chance to reconsider the conventional working structures of the legal profession and an opportunity to create a more individualised work schedule and environment. This shift has highlighted the need for flexible working arrangements, especially for parents with young children, carers and those with disabilities. It has also unmasked some entrenched inequities, particularly on the issue of gender, where there is still much work to be done. 

So, what have we learned so far and what can we take away? 

Trust 

It has been encouraging for many lawyers to know our supervisors and clients trust us to get work done, even if they do not see us in the office. 

With no loud conversations, phone calls or interruptions in the office, we have learned we can utilise the calm and silence of the home to focus and produce some of our best work. 

Wellbeing and exercise 

Wellbeing has become a bigger topic of conversation among lawyers and legal staff, and phrases such as “make sure to take a break”, “switch off” and “work-life balance” are feeling less tokenistic and more like a genuine attempt from employers to ensure staff wellbeing is maintained in this changed working environment. 

It wasn’t until our ability to move freely in public was taken away that many of us realised we actually need regular outdoor exercise and fresh air to maintain not just our physical health but also our mental health. 

Getting out for a walk, run or ride each day gives us an opportunity to call a friend, listen to a podcast or just gather our thoughts. With a clearer mind, we can approach our work with greater clarity and focus.

The importance of equal division of care

Women have traditionally carried the lion’s share of caring and domestic responsibilities and the sudden shift to working from home has highlighted this example of gender inequality. From the constant interruptions from children to looking after parents and extended family members, for many, working from home has been fraught with additional challenges. 

However, we are seeing glimpses of change in this regard. In the context of heterosexual relationships, Workplace Gender Equality Agency recently noted that men, who are not conventionally the primary carers, have utilised increased workplace flexibility to be more involved in care and domestic work.

Technology is key 

With the aid of technology, we have learned we can file court documents, attend hearings, close deals, conduct mediations, review contracts, attend conferences and swear affidavits all from the comfort of our home. We don’t need to be in a suit to achieve great results. 

We have been able to use different platforms for business development, to foster client relationships and to remain connected with our colleagues. 

For the legal profession, 2020 vision means a greater emphasis on flexibility, wellbeing and, ultimately, a more efficient and equal system of work and home labour.

Victorian Women Lawyers has been active in delivering content to help its members to thrive in this changed working environment, including recent webinars on working and networking remotely. We acknowledge the importance of delivering relevant CPD content flexibly and will continue to produce a mix of accessible digital and face to face events post-pandemic. ■


Gemma Hannah and Jyoti Haikerwal are members of the Victorian Women Lawyers Networking Committee. 

  1. Workplace Gender Equality Agency, ‘Gendered impacts of COVID-19’ (Monthly Update, May 2020) 3, <https://www.wgea.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/Gendered%20impacts%20of%20COVID19_0.pdf>.

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