GENDER is on the agenda at the nations’ top law firms, but new federal sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick hopes that it won’t even be an issue at the end of her five-year term. If she has her way, a more flexible workplace will bring benefits for both male and female lawyers.
The traditional business model of law firms is one of the main structural barriers for female professionals, “I do still think that for most law firms there is a one principle model of success and that is the transactional model that’s 24/7 and increasingly that has difficulties not just for women but also for men,” Broderick said.
Commissioner Broderick is well placed to question the “one size fits all” approach to career advancement in the legal sector. She has first-hand experience of the demands of a senior legal role at one of the country’s top law firms, Blake Dawson. Broderick was named partner at Blakes in 1995, was a board member from 2003—06 and remains an alumni and regular visitor to the firm since her appointment as commissioner earlier this year.
At Blake Dawson she developed a business case for flexibility in the workplace. This effectively demonstrated that without flexible work practices, the firm’s business performance, profitability and productivity would be severely impacted by many millions of dollars.
Her experience is already being put into practice — Broderick commenced a national “listening tour” last week, starting in South Australia.
Of course, her talents lie not only in listening, but in her ability to engage with issues raised, and implement a plan of action. While explaining the aims of the listening tour, she peppers her conversation with rapid fire suggestions about ways to research, implement and monitor workplace flexibility across different industries.
In the legal sector, the first issue in her sights is the gap between the high number of female university law graduates and the number of female partners, or more specifically, female equity partners.
“I’ve been really pleased to see that the actual issue of gender is on a lot of law firms’ agendas if I can put it that way, and it’s good to see that a law firm [Mallesons] won an EOWA achievement award for the advancement of women for organisations with over 500 employees just last week. I suppose it tells me that these issues are starting to receive attention in organisations, but I think for law firms it’s really a business issue,” Broderick said.
“But, I think as with [other] business issues, we need to measure this. The chief executive women have got their CEO toolkit for measuring women’s participation in organisations. It’s a benchmarking tool which would allow you to see where is it that we’re losing really highly-talented women, and then introducing some targeted programs, and a very robust evaluation model.”
Broderick is realistic about the demands of the top jobs in the legal profession, but believes that change is still possible. “That’s [the] starting point, very high expectations for men and women. And maybe there are some roles that can’t be re-engineered to be done in any other alternative work practice, but have we actually done the thinking to make that decision?
“I don’t think we actually have. I don’t think that many firms have done the thinking around that in a really systematic matter,” she said. “Time is the currency of relationships, so how can [the profession] integrate that need to care with the desire to want to succeed in their business and reach the highest levels of law? What I would like to see is a variety of different models of success — we need to redefine what success means.”
See table: Career timeline: Elizabeth Broderick.