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The NARS report: One year on

The time for discussing whether gender inequality is a problem in the law is over, the president-elect of the Law Council of Australia (LCA) has said.

user iconFelicity Nelson 24 March 2015 SME Law
Stuart Clark LCA
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Stuart Clark (pictured), who is also a partner at Clayton Utz, called for candid discussion about the programs and policies that will slow female lawyer attrition rates.

“We know we’ve got a problem. The point is, we’ve got to fix it,” Mr Clark told Lawyers Weekly. “There has been too much talk… Yes, we’ve got this terrible problem, it is awful, but what the hell are we going to do about it?

“I’m not interested in spin; I’m interested in results,” he said.


The LCA held a symposium on March 13, marking one year since the release of the National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS).

The NARS Roundtable, held at Clayton Utz’s Sydney office, was attended by large law firm executives and the heads of law councils and bar associations from around Australia.

The purpose of the event was to create a safe environment for different legal sectors to share information about which gender diversity initiatives have worked and which have failed.

“What we were looking for was the good, the bad and the ugly,” said Mr Clark. “We didn’t want to turn it into a media event; we wanted people to talk frankly and freely.

“It is very hard to stand up and say, ‘We tried this and it didn’t work’ or ‘We’re doing this but it didn’t get enough take-up’. We wanted to make sure that people could be frank and fearless,” he said.

The NARS report surveyed around 4,000 lawyers, both male and female, providing a whole-of-profession snapshot to act as a baseline from which to measure progress, said Mr Clark.

Fifty per cent of women surveyed said they had experienced discrimination due to their gender, compared with 10 per cent of men. One in four women said they were discriminated against due to family or carer responsibilities.

The report also contained troubling statistics on the level of sexual harassment of female lawyers and bullying and intimidation in the workplace.

Setting real targets

Mr Clark said the leadership of the legal profession – the law societies, the bar associations, the large law firm group and the large law firms – are in agreement about the seriousness of these findings and the need for systemic change.

“What we’ve got now is actually a leadership that is committed to doing something across the whole profession… Everybody is working towards a common goal,” he said.

For Mr Clark, the challenge for the legal profession now is to “move it beyond an aspirational statement to something more solid”.

However, the extent to which real progress is being made depends on the sector of the profession, he believes.

Large law firms and law societies are covering more ground than the smaller firms and small bar associations, which lack the resources to explore this issue.

Facilitating the sharing of policies and programs between these two groups will be one of the goals of the LCA’s follow-up event on May 8.

“I think there are also groups of lawyers that are yet to be convinced that this is the way to go. That’s an educational issue,” he continued. 

Lawyers are naturally inclined to be cynical about reform, but this can be countered through strong leadership and tangible results, he added.

“My view is that unless you measure something and then report against those results, nothing happens because it is all too easy.

“Let’s as a profession aim for some targets. Let’s then report against those targets as to how we are going,” he said.

Normalise flexibility and conquer unconscious bias

Despite the NARS report identifying the exploration of alternative billing models as a priority, Mr Clark said he doubted that simply scrapping the billable hour would have much impact on female attrition rates.

“If we got rid of time billing tomorrow … something else would become the measure of productivity.

“I think what is more important is changing the culture within the firm – the way people interact … the way they treat people who have taken 12 months … off to have a family,” he said.

Lawyers returning from leave or wishing to work flexibly must be supported by the firm and the wider profession, said Mr Clark.

“If you want to change the culture of the workplace… you've got to make sure that the partners, the managers, the supervisors and, indeed, the courts understand that some people are working on a flexible basis and that’s got to be viewed as just as valuable as working full-time,” he said.

Spreading awareness of unconscious bias is also crucial, according to Mr Clark.

“We need to … look at programs that will help people … understand unconscious bias and then move to the next step and say, ‘How do I avoid unconscious bias in … my choice of who to promote, who to brief, who to recommend as SC or QC?’.”


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