The lead up to the Lawyers Weekly 2014 Women in Law Awards is a good time to reflect on the challenges that female legal professionals face, writes John MacLean.
Addressing the legal gender gap with effective talent management will benefit the profession as a whole.
Business practices cause and effect
While there have been some steps made towards improving workplace benefits and attitudes to women in law, there is still room for further improvement.
There is no doubt that the combination of an extremely competitive local market and the deadline, time and cost-driven requirements of the legal industry make it challenging for legal professionals to achieve work-life balance. While many law firms are building teams that are working harder and more efficiently, there remains an unequal balance of gender diversity at the leadership level.
At Michael Page Legal, we are seeing an increase in jobseeker activity at the mid-to-senior level of the market based on our 2014/15 Legal Salary and Employment Forecast report. Candidates’ reasons for leaving are very often similar and include inflexible working patterns, cultures that don’t support collaborative working and access to good quality work. Firms that are aware of these issues and work on improving them will see an improvement in their attrition rate.
According to the Law Council of Australia, only 19 per cent of senior positions in law firms are held by women. In many cases, having children often comes around the same time as when women are building their career and seeking a more senior position. The desire by legal professionals to gain flexible working arrangements is a natural requirement for women at this stage of their life and career. Employers that effectively manage and communicate their talent management strategy around flexible working will attract and retain quality talent, particularly at a senior level.
Diversity is a key element for business success
Figures from the National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS) report show that female solicitors comprise 61 per cent of all solicitors admitted in the last year. This clearly indicates a shifting workforce towards a more female-focused demographic and highlights the large part women play in the legal industry.
As such, law firms and corporate legal teams will gain from increasing gender diversity in senior management roles as female employees bring a different way of approaching issues to the workplace and deliver a balanced set of skills. This will have a positive impact on the diversity, productivity and health of the entire business.
According to our 2014/15 Legal Salary and Employment Forecast, some of the most popular tools employers offer to support employee work-life balance are flexible working arrangements, with 89 per cent of surveyed employers offering this, and increased maternity/paternity leave (33%). It is essential for firms to promote better retention strategies aimed at women to keep their talent, and be able to attract more female leaders.
It is interesting to note that, according to the NARS report, even when there is a range of flexible working arrangements available women are concerned that taking them up will negatively impact their career progression. The report highlights the need to provide and support flexible work practices and facilitate better work-life balance, but it is also clear that there is still work to do on attitudes in the workplace.
Cultural shift needed to encourage work-life balance
There is a long way to go before parity between men and women in the legal industry is reached, however there are encouraging signs. The focus on providing more opportunities for women to get into leadership positions is increasing, with more women moving into partnership roles.
It is also important to acknowledge that work-life balance is not just important to women but also to men. Encouraging a cultural shift on working hours and flexibility will have a positive impact for both men and women. Bearing in mind that there is some unconscious bias towards people who work flexibly, working to change that culture will go a long way to reducing attrition and keeping the best people in the business.
The impact of firm size
Smaller law firms can be more attractive to professionals who require flexible working arrangements and lawyers can enjoy greater autonomy in this environment. On the other hand, large firms have an infrastructure that often provides increased opportunities for learning and development and long-term promotion. The common theme, irrespective of firm size, is working in a positive culture with strong leadership.
We are also seeing women choosing to continue their career in an in-house legal role, which has previously been a talent drain of female legal professionals from private practice to in-house. The drivers here are very often better work-life balance and improved flexibility. Firms that actively manage their culture and promote flexibility will see a positive impact on their attrition. They are also more likely to attract top talent from other businesses who are looking to move for the same reasons.
Like many industries the legal profession is finding talent management challenging. By adopting more inclusive attraction and retention strategies businesses will increase attraction of top talent and decrease attrition at the mid to senior level. There are a number of flexible working options, such as working remotely, providing suitable childcare and using technology to deliver services to colleagues and clients. When these are in place and effective, law firms should ensure they are well communicated and that successes are highlighted.
Working hard to achieve diversity within your business will pay dividends in the future. Being proactive and delivering a strategy to promote flexibility and collaboration will harness the best talent and ultimately reduce costs.
John MacLean (pictured) is the director of Michael Page Legal. For more information visit www.michaelpage.com.au
Copy provided by Michael Page Legal.
 Hlubucek, E (2014) Addressing attrition and encouraging re-engagement of women lawyers, Law Council of Australia, page 5.