According to the President of the Australian Women Lawyers, it is more likely that female lawyers will become victims of the economic downturn than male lawyers:
As we find ourselves in difficult economic times, with law firms retrenching staff, it is an unfortunate fact that the people at the lower end of the seniority spectrum are the ones who find themselves in difficult employment situations.
At the moment, this means facing redundancy or an invitation to take extended leave, and it is the part-time workers, the recently returned-to-work employees, and most junior members of firms and the bar who are at most risk of losing their jobs. This predominantly means women.
The nasty cynical side of me is not surprised.
The AWL is advocating for targets to be set for numbers of female junior barristers and senior barristers, and briefs given to female barristers as well as targets for numbers of female junior solicitors and partners, and the promotion of female solicitors.
I still think that the reason why many women (and men) leave the law is not because of discrimination per se. Of course, discrimination happens, and I’ve seen it in action. But the greater reason is the culture of the law. Being a full time solicitor or barrister is not particularly compatible with raising a family. Any successful solicitor or barrister has to work long hours, and it is often difficult to really work part time (depending upon the kind of practice that you have).
Before I had kids, and even in the early days of my first pregnancy, I thought I’d just head on straight back to work after I popped out the kids. I was unprepared for the intense desire to care for my child. I cried the whole way into work on the first day I went back to part-time work. In some ways, it has become more difficult the older my daughter has become, because she can articulate her need for a parent to be around. I simply don’t want to be a barrister or solicitor any more, because I do not want to sacrifice my time with my children to the extent that these careers demand. There have been a couple of instances in the last few months where I’ve bumped into people who haven’t seen me for years, and they are astounded at the change which has come over me. I was very ambitious during my 20s, and had no thought of sacrificing career for family.
Perhaps the setting of gender targets would force a change in the culture of the law, but I think more is needed. It’s not just a problem faced by women, although for the reasons stated by the AWL, women do tend to be more vulnerable. I have male friends who left private practice because they were also very unhappy with the impact of law firm culture on their life and family relationships. And I wonder whether those men who have made it to partner or silk are really that happy. One of my colleagues had a heart attack a while back, and apparently he has totally reformed his workaholic practices as a result. I am just happy that he didn’t kill himself! It’s time to think more deeply about the culture of the law, and the way in which legal services are provided to the community.