Why I quit my job at a corporate law firm, during a pandemic and a recession

By Sarah Behenna|02 July 2020
Sarah Behenna

An HR-led webinar in May on the topic of our annual end of financial year development reviews encouraged us, as lawyers, to ask of our supervising partners at review time: What should I keep doing?”, presumably in an attempt to elicit some positive feedback from them in what is otherwise a generally negative experience revolving around what we aren’t doing well, how far off our target budgets are, how excessive our write-offs are and how much more business development we should be undertaking, writes Sarah Behenna.

This question led me down quite an existential path in the days and weeks following the webinar and my contemplation evolved from “What should I keep doing?” to “Why should I keep doing it?”

So, why should I continue to be a lawyer in private practice? 

I am a 38-year-old woman who, despite being admitted 11 years ago, am still at lawyer level in my career. I am also a single parent and sole carer of two school-aged children. I had my first child whilst I was in the middle of law school and, since my admission to practice, have only ever worked part-time. I am the full-time equivalent of approximately five years’ post-qualification experience. 

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Law was my second degree and, after the birth of my second child, I also went on to complete a master of laws. My HECS debt therefore currently sits at $84,652.15. Never since my first child have I earnt above the debt repayment threshold and therefore each year the debt increases (as it is indexed) and it looks unlikely to decrease anytime soon, let alone be paid off completely.

It is fantastic that women are now educated at equal and higher rates as men in Australia but it is what is happening afterwards, during women’s time in paid employment, that is still so depressing.

Law firms are in the business of selling knowledge and time and the profession is inherently geared towards rewarding and promoting those who are able to bill the most. All lawyers are familiar with these concepts: the more you are able to bill or the more work you are able to generate for the firm then the better chance you have at career success. 

This model is flawed when it requires someone like myself (who works part-time and is responsible for all things domestic and child-related such as school drop-offs, after school care pick-ups, co-curricular activities, child sick days etc) to be directly compared to others who have the ability to work extra hours, to do the networking required in our industry and to be able to focus on doing the job, mostly to the exclusion of all else. 

The fact of the matter is that my disproportionately high burden of care means I don’t have access to a lifestyle which allows me to progress nor prosper in this type of workplace. 

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At my place of work I was overlooked for promotion, possibly because I worked flexibly and therefore not considered to be a “real player”. It was at this point that I considered looking for more “female-friendly” (a term I deeply despise) work. But why does “female-friendly” still exist as a concept? Can’t all employment just be inclusive?

The reality is that yes, parenthood turns women into less ideal employees. Should this mean we are pushed out of private practice? No! Private practice loses so many great female lawyers because the playing field is so uneven and because the stupid curve is a very real phenomenon. If men were able to “lean out” and get comfortable with also becoming less ideal employees in parenthood, then some space could be made for women.

I really have no idea why I stuck at the game for so long. Why I felt I had to send my CV to potential employers with a covering letter reassuring them that “I have now completed my family” (so, God forbid, they don’t get worried I will run off and have more children) or wear an old wedding band to job interviews so as to not look unemployable as a husbandless mother seeking part-time work?

When I dug a little deeper I realised that I stuck at it for so long, whilst seemingly not getting anywhere, because I didn’t want to be shunted off to different roles just because it was easier for my career to redirect rather than make the career I already had easier for me to stay in.  

I stuck at it as I wanted younger women to know that a long-lasting career in the law in private practice as a parent was attainable. And desirable. If they saw it then they would hopefully believe it and stick at it themselves and then we could potentially see real change. But the reality was, I didn’t see it at a senior level myself at my own workplace.

Sure, there were perhaps three or four female partners that had children and a career in the Adelaide office but really the main picture I saw when I looked around was a bunch of men who have children (probably around 20 male partners/senior consultants) and a thriving career and not a whole lot of women. Then I thought about all the highly skilled and highly capable women who had resigned from private practice.  Then I became one of those women. 

In an attempt to provide flexible work, I was employed on a casual basis. Casualisation of the workforce is another problem, particularly for women, as we forego secure work in our attempt to work flexibly. Unfortunately, most of the time I was actually just so grateful to even be employed as a female lawyer that I subjugated most of these feelings.  

These are universal problems and certainly not confined to my individual experience nor even to my industry. But law firms, and the profession, need to do better by:

1. Being clearer about how they will support females to senior roles, possibly by using quotas, and make it appear that these senior roles are actually attainable and desirable.

2. Thinking of women as investments rather than liabilities.

3. Offering the same parental leave for all parents (eg not just for the primary carer) and then by actively encouraging male lawyers to take the parental leave.

4. Ceasing to view flexible working as a benefit and make it an integral part of their culture.

5. Encouraging men to take strategic approaches to being inclusive.

6. Actively encouraging men to work flexibly and heavily trying to destigmatise parental leave and flexible working.

7. Supporting men to contribute to a greater share of caring responsibilities.

8. Working to break down and remove the cultural and structural barriers of the firm which prevent women from attaining seniority and have influenced them to instead leave private practice or the profession entirely; and

9. Educating and being educated about the benefits of gender and equality strategies as there are profound benefits that gender equality brings to the productivity, culture and philosophy of a firm and to the profession. And to the world. 

I’d like to think that the men I know, and hopefully the men reading this, can acknowledge the inequality and would be prepared to make room for us and to foster major and equitable change for women, both at work and at home.

Sarah Behenna is a qualified lawyer based in Adelaide, South Australia.

Why I quit my job at a corporate law firm, during a pandemic and a recession
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