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Law facing ‘brain drain’
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Law facing ‘brain drain’

Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) director Libby Lyons has warned firms about the “brain drain” threatening their business.

According to Ms Lyons, firms are shedding talent, with many lawyers who aren’t absorbed into in-house roles choosing to leave the profession entirely.

Speaking at a corporate lunch series last week, she suggested that while most firms know that the best lawyers are happy ones, people in private practice continue to leave their jobs for lifestyle reasons.

“In this environment law firms simply cannot afford the brain drain that sees male and female lawyers turn more and more to in-house roles or corporate roles as a way of managing their home and careers,” Ms Lyons said.

Pointing to an interview that the WGEA conducted with one young male associate, Ms Lyons said firms have not done enough to ensure staff members feel empowered to take up the flexible work options on offer.

The feeling of an inhibited work-life balance only gives people more reasons to look in-house or elsewhere, she said.

“This [associate] felt that flexibility was not an option available to him, because he didn’t feel like he had a good enough reason to request flexible work. The lawyers he saw who were most successful at flex had negotiated their arrangement from a position of strength – that is, they had received another job offer.

“When asked about his plans for managing his future career and work-life balance, he replied ‘Eventually I’ll just leave’ – and that’s at the nub of it all,” Ms Lyons said.

She urged firms to pay attention to the trend and implement meaningful changes to accommodate alternative work arrangements for staff across the board. Not doing so will have implications for the bottom line, she warned.

In particular, she advocated for changes to see middle-management better supported in leading flexible workforces, in addition to meeting their performance indicator objectives. Managers who demonstrate flexible work practices are also essential to shift workplace culture, Ms Lyons said.

“Employers and partners can prevent [brain drain] by creating cultures in which [job-sharing] and flexible working is used widely and which allows lawyers to continue these arrangements as they move up into senior roles.

“WGEA data overall shows us that only 6.3 per cent of managers work part-time, and that is due to a cultural norm we have around presenteeism – that if you’re not sitting at your desk, you’re not working,” Ms Lyons said.

Although talent retention in law may not be at crisis point yet, Ms Lyons believes the time has come for a broader conversation about the changing notion of ‘work’. 

She said that although quitting can be a tough call to make, a new generation of lawyers have realised that something has to give and are also willing to do something about it. She expressed “great faith” in the ability of Millennials and their Gen-X colleagues to set the agenda and help build a new workplace reality.

“We need to talk about the future of work because it is changing and there’s a lot of nervousness out there – amongst employees, in particular – about how work is changing.

“Because Generation X and Millennials have seen the hard work of their parents working all hours, and they’ve seen us price them out of ever owning their own homes – they think there’s got to be a better way.

“And so they’re challenging some of these workplace and cultural norms. I think that’s great,” Ms Lyons said.

Workplace Gender Equality Agency director Libby Lyons
Libby Lyons speaking at the Women Lawyers Association of NSW corporate lunch series. The event was supported by Bartier Perry and the Law Society of NSW. 

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