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It’s been 100 years of female lawyers – but what’s changed?

It’s been 100 years of female lawyers – but what’s changed?

This year has been one of reflection as we recognised the 100th anniversary of the legislation which allowed women to train as solicitors, writes Matthew Kay.

The First 100 Years initiative was started in England, to recognise its own anniversary (which is next year), but Australia was one step (and a good few years) ahead – Victoria was the first state to allow women to practise law in 1903, closely followed by Tasmania and Queensland.

This year was chosen to recognise the broad anniversary of the introduction of the legislation across all states.

Of course, there’s no denying that the past 100 years have seen a huge amount of change and the legal profession in Australia is now roughly split 50/50 gender-wise. But as we all know by now, more needs to be done. We know that women are missing from senior roles in law firms and the challenges facing women still need to be overcome.

Ann-Marie Rice, director at Rice Naughton McCarthy and winner of the Leneen Ford AC Woman Lawyer of the Year Award 2018, spoke about her struggles of being a lawyer and a mother: “The responsibility for the change to make professional life sustainable for women, is mine. It’s ours. The responsibility to stop pretending that a flourishing legal career and committed parenting (or other) role is at all easy, realistic, healthy or sustainable, is mine. It’s ours.”

Of course, one thing which can dramatically improve the numbers of women in senior legal roles is flexible working.

“Not another article on flexible working”, I hear you cry. And it’s a fair reaction – flexible working has been discussed, pondered over and written about numerous times in the last few years. The gig economy has also moved the conversation along when it comes to working in a different way.

But what’s the reality of this flexible working revolution? Of course, the lack of gender diversity in the legal profession at a senior level has been recognised and there are a number of great initiatives in place across the industry to support female talent.

For example, at Pinsent Masons, the Project Sky initiative – which is aimed at achieving an improved gender balance in the firm’s partnership by removing any barriers to the progression of women to the highest levels – has seen the firm already surpass its target for 25 per cent female partners. Agile working and freelance lawyering are also becoming popular options for those wishing to return to work but needing to balance those needs with family commitments.

However, more could be done – just recently, Natalie Goldman, CEO of FlexCareers commented that Australian companies are lagging behind Europe, Scandinavia and the US in embracing flexible and remote work.

Australia needs to pull up its socks. We have millions of women who are underemployed. You’ve got a lot of people who could be contributing a lot more to the GDP of this country.

Another huge reason why the legal profession should embrace flexible working is the extra productivity it can bring. A recent report from the University of Sydney focused on a group of major Australian employers and found that those which introduced flexible working conditions for all staff are finding it good for engagement, morale and business.

Businesses in the survey recorded similar levels of growth, even when a larger proportion of staff were working flexibly. An HSBC study found that nine in ten employees consider flexible working to be a key motivator to their productivity levels within the workplace – more so than financial incentives (77 per cent).

Of course, in the legal profession there are some very practical reasons why flexible working can be an issue – for a lawyer working on a big deal, it is usually very important for them to be in situ, working closely with their team. But with more and more firms offering flexible working, it is also vital that lawyers help open up the conversation and ask for flexible working – it’s definitely a two- way street and embracing these new policies help ensure a firm isn’t just paying lip service to the new working revolution.

By embracing policies that exist it shows there is demand, so that firms then build on, and extend, existing policies. Or, if the right policy isn’t already in place, it’s vital that individuals speak up – as Ms Rice comments, it’s important we all take responsibility to make things better for ourselves, for colleagues and for future generations.

A culture change is needed, but what we’re seeing more of now is the right policies and measures in place to allow lawyers to work flexibly – from more parental leave to the option of working as a freelance lawyer, which is becoming more and more accepted as an alternative to a traditional legal career path.

We’re moving in the right direction, but it’s also down to individuals to help move the conversation along and take advantage of these policies when they’re offered – it will help ensure we see more equality in the next 100 years.

Matthew Kay is Director at Vario, part of Pinsent Masons.

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