HOLDING ONTO good lawyers has never been harder, and with women now making up a clear majority of law graduates, law firms are pulling out all the stops to attract and retain top female legal talent.
This year eight law firms were handed the Employer of Choice for Women accolade by the Federal Government’s Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA).
Ninety-nine organisations Australia-wide made the cut this year, with law firms comprising a significant chunk of the 15 organisations listed in the Property and Business Services category.
There were 32 fewer organisations than last year making the list, which is likely to be the result of an additional six prerequisites to listing added by the EOWA this year. Clayton Utz, TressCox and Deacons were among those falling off the list this year.
Among the new prerequisites is a requirement that female managers be allowed to work part-time, and a requirement that a minimum of six weeks’ paid maternity leave is allowed after 12 months of service.
In addition, the pay equity gap between average male and female salaries at every level of the organisation must be lower than the national average (currently 17 per cent) and lower than their industry’s average, and the organisation’s proportion of female managers must be over 27 per cent, or higher than the industry average.
These new prerequisites are in addition to the other requirements that the organisation has policies in place supporting women and that it educates its employees about rights and responsibilities in respect of sex-based harassment.
Holding Redlich, the only law firm new to the list this year, has implemented a number of policies to support women, helping it earn to its position on the list.
The firm’s managing partner, Chris Lovell, explained that the main initiative has been to establish “parenting partners” in each office. Parenting partners are partners of the firm with children who provide advice to employees having children, as well as assisting them to organise flexible working arrangements upon their return to work.
“The idea is to make it a comfortable relationship, so somebody who’s gone on maternity leave and wants to come back doesn’t feel like they have to argue their case. They feel like they’ve got the support from someone — a partner of the firm, someone with authority and this responsibility,” Lovell said.
The initiative has helped the firm achieve a 100 per cent success rate of employees returning to the firm after having a child, he said.
Lovell believes that the ever-increasing number of women entering the profession, combined with the tight labour market, means that law firms can’t afford to be complacent about the issue.
“One thing I think people are starting to come to terms with is that the demographics of the legal profession are shifting. The profession is gradually becoming less ‘male heavy’ and there are now many more women graduates coming out of law school than men,” Lovell said.
“Retention is incredibly important and incredibly difficult these days, so you’ve got to put policies into place that encourage people to stay. So even aside from the question of general fairness, commercial logic dictates that you put these policies into place.”
Christine Covington, partner for diversity at Corrs Chambers Westgarth, agrees that supporting female employees has become a commercial necessity for law firms.
“The global talent war is now so intense that the business case around retaining [women] — who now make up large proportion of the professional workforce — is absolutely compelling,” she said.
Among the initiatives that have been instituted by Corrs is a “diversity council” which is currently in the process of analysing existing flexible working arrangements with a view to revamping the firm’s flexible work policy. Interviews are being conducted with those working under such arrangements and the results will be used to guide the drafting of a new policy. The firm is also launching a program called “Women in Charge”, designed to help women better plan their careers.
These initiatives have helped the firm drop its attrition rate for women by almost 15 per cent over the last year, and for the first time, it’s fallen below the attrition rate for men.
Supporting female employees has also been on Maddocks’ agenda for some time, according to the firm’s director of human resources, Liz Ryan. Among the firm’s initiatives in the area is the development of a “women’s networking group” which last year celebrated its 10th anniversary last year.
“It was set up to help women learn to network more effectively, which in professional services, you’ve to do to progress,” Ryan said.
Ryan also said that the firm is dedicated to helping employees organise flexible work arrangements to suit their individual circumstances.
“For example, we had one lawyer who was very keen to work five days a week but had issues getting childcare on Wednesdays, so we arranged for her to be able to stay at home on a Wednesday but work on a Saturday,” Ryan said.
However, while many firms are taking steps to help retain women, Ryan believes the profession could do more to increase the number of women moving right through to partner level.
“There are a large number of female graduates still not making that progression. So whilst I think we’ve come a long way in the profession, I still think we’ve got a long way to go and I think we really need to be looking at what we need to do in the future to make sure we’re retaining talent,” she said.
Ryan’s views echo the comments of Elizabeth Broderick when she spoke to Lawyers Weekly late last year.
“Nearly 70 per cent of law school graduate are female … but when you unbundle the partnership figures and look at how many make it to equity partner level there are really only a very few,” Broderick said.
“The fact is that the business model as currently constructed isn’t one that is conducive to [a balanced life for] women, and increasingly for men. I still think that for most law firms there is a one principle model of success and that is the transactional model that’s the 24/7,” Broderick said.
“What I would like to see is a redefining of what success means, so that in certain roles the three-day job isn’t seen as something different; it’s part of the mainstream.”