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NZ discovers flexibility works for fairer sex

NZ discovers flexibility works for fairer sex

IT IS not just women in this country that have been having a tough time getting to partnership level, a New Zealand survey has revealed. While women comprise over a third of all law…

IT IS not just women in this country that have been having a tough time getting to partnership level, a New Zealand survey has revealed.

While women comprise over a third of all law practitioners in that country, they significantly lag behind at partnership level, according to the New Zealand Census of Women’s Participation 2006.

Overall, less than 20 per cent of partners are female in the land of the long white cloud. The gender discrepancy could be linked to the average longer practising time of male lawyers, according to the New Zealand Women’s Consultative Group’s 2005 survey of male and female practitioners.

The survey found that hours of work and a firm’s commitment to family friendliness were the two most pressing issues for women lawyers with dependants under the age of 18.

Lesley Brook, convener of the Otago Women Lawyers’ Society, said most working women are still also their children’s “primary caregiver”. Brook suggested women tend to have children around the time they might be expected to attain partnership. In order to attract and retain women partners, law firms must evolve to achieve work-life balance at partnership level.

Many women partners find it “simply too difficult” to meet expectations at partnership level when juggling the demands of family life, she said. Partners can be expected to do about eight billable hours per day at large law firms which, combined with time supervising and mentoring staff and participating in managing a firm, can mean partners are working 15 hour days.

Practical alternatives to the burden of meeting chargeable time expectations include starting up a law firm with like-minded partners or becoming a sole practitioner or barrister. North Shore law firm Lewis Callanan is managed exclusively by female partners. Partner Rowena Lewis stated that managing a small law firm provided greater flexibility and the ability to opt out of overtime. She succinctly summed up the firm’s view on working hours: “I don’t do weekends”. If she works less, she earns less.

Phillips Fox is among the more innovative firms which retain and promote both female and male practitioners with families by offering flexible working schedules in partnerships. Ranked as having the highest proportion of female partners in the Census — at 31 per cent — Phillips Fox allows ‘flexitime’ to its partner Sharon Skinner.

Skinner said chargeable time expectations in the firm are achievable so long as there is flexibility, and “other systems”, including appropriate child care, are in place. In a dual-career household, Skinner was fortunate to have the “best PA and home support” as well as a supportive partner. Skinner emphasised there must be mutual flexibility; she is committed to achieving the firm’s aspirations for outstanding achievement.

Phillips Fox partner Helen Atkins makes up time outside of the office and is contactable by phone. When physically in the office, she makes herself available at particular times for supervision. Strategies to cope with a work-life balance can depend on the particular type of law practised, and Atkins considers herself fortunate to be working in environmental law.

Firms can help partners by setting up home offices so they can work remotely. Joanna Pidgeon, a partner of New Zealand firm Hesketh Henry, is currently on maternity leave and is planning to work from home. The firm prides itself in being “both professional and human”.

See Women in Law on page 18.

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