Women and the law

By Legal Eagle

Why are women dropping out of the law? Why are women under-represented in law firms and at the Bar? Let me count the reasons! In a speech last year to the LawAsia Downunder conference, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria identified the following as an issue:

“Research has shown that in Victoria women are dropping out of the profession around five to seven years after qualification…

One reason for this is that they are being used in law firms “to run the coalface of litigation”, frequently leading to burnout. “But also, about the seven-year [post qualification] mark is when a lot of women are thinking about their quality of life and about having children,” she said. “After all, the clock is ticking.””

Yep, that’s me. I didn’t want to wait to have children, because I didn’t want to risk the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to have them. There has been so much publicity about the biological clock in the last few years; I heard that many of my aunt’s friends waited too long, and tried IVF treatment over and over, to no avail.

Before I had a child, I was unaware of how great a responsibility it was, and how much I would want to spend time watching my child grow. When I told work I was pregnant, I told one boss I’d be back at work within 6 weeks of the birth. He looked at me wryly and said “Hmm, get back to me later on that one, I won’t hold you to it!” (sensible man). I had unrealistic expectations that I would be able to juggle children and be able to continue my career as a solicitor as if nothing had changed. But I have been very surprised at how difficult it is, and how inflexible my workplace was (see my post on the Babies and Lawyers survey). I think part of the problem is workplace culture and the curse of the six minute billing unit. I also wonder how “flexible” some supposedly flexible workplaces are in real terms (see previous post).

The Chief Justice also addressed the issue of workplace flexibility in a recent speech which gave for the 10th anniversary of the Victorian Women Lawyers’ Association:

Women and their supporters should redefine ambition to encompass excellence and achievement but with flexibility and balance. Having a family and nurturing it should never be portrayed as the abandonment of ambition. Ambition should be read in the context of the best of our human potential and it should include the option of being the best parent and the best lawyer.

I agree totally. I want to be able to spend time with my family, not spend all of my time at work. I’m not alone there. I have a friend who regularly works until 10pm at night on weekdays and works on most weekends as well. He is a lawyer. His wife is expecting their first child. He is very excited about the prospect of fatherhood, but also very worried about whether he is going to be able to cut down his hours when the baby arrives. He wants to be there for his wife and his baby. Understandably, he is questioning whether being a lawyer is really compatible with being a good parent. I think that all lawyers (both women and men) should be able to nurture their families without an adverse affect on their career. From my point of view, both mothers and fathers have an equal right to participate in the upbringing of their child.

I might also say that the people who have been least understanding of my desire to have flexible work practices have been women. Yep, I’m afraid so. It has left me very, very disappointed. When I told one female lawyer with young children that I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go back to work when my baby was only three months old, she responded impatiently, “Well, Legal Eagle, that’s just what we female lawyers have to do. You don’t want to drop the ball. We have to be stronger than any man.” She then inferred that I wasn’t interested in my career. Of course I am. I just want some balance.

I agree with the Chief Justice when she says that a valuable resource is being lost when women drop out of the law. I would go further than this. A valuable resource is being lost when anyone drops out of the law. Why are women dropping out to a greater degree then? First, they are the ones who have to physically bear children. In addition, in the first months of life the child is utterly helpless. I was astounded how much my baby relied on me completely and how difficult it was for me to leave her. Secondly, perhaps it is also more socially acceptable for a woman to leave work to spend time with family than it is for a man; many men still have an idea that they must be the providers for the family. But the right to a flexible workplace is a right which should be accorded to both men and women, and to parents and non-parents.

I do not think these issues should be regarded as just “women’s issues”. When they read this blog, sexist men can say “There she goes on about the “chick topic” again!” and write it off as something that they (as red-blooded males) can ignore. However, it is easier for a woman to shoulder a greater workload if her partner has a flexible workload as well, and can help share in the duties (and wonders) of parenthood.

The fact of the matter is that these issues concern all lawyers and we should address the canker within the legal culture which leads to a culture of workaholism and inflexibility.


  1. KY
    Posted September 21, 2006 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    The situation is a bit different in Hong Kong.

    Female lawyers tend to be well to do. So for those who want to keep working, they can always afford an army of domestic helpers to assist with day-to-day care of the child.

    The bigger issue is the cultural conditioning (especially amongst the well to do young females) that one should marry someone sufficiently well off so that one has the option not to work after marriage. I hear that all the time from some of my female colleagues, who go on proudly about how much they would like to be full-time shoppers and beauty treatment centre attendees after marriage (again they don’t need to worry about domestic chores because their rich prospective husbands can hire domestic helpers).

  2. Legal Eagle
    Posted September 21, 2006 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    Hmm, seems a bit shallow to me. I don’t think I would have much in common with these chicks.

    The thing is, I could keep working if I wanted to and put my child in childcare, but personally I’d prefer not to do that. However, as I said in another post, I wouldn’t judge anyone who chose to do that.

    In any case, the cost of childcare would eat massively into my salary, so it wouldn’t be worth my while from a pragmatic point of view. As reported in The Age yesterday, the tax system is structured so that this is the case for many middle-income women. Rather than handing out family benefits, I think the government should concentrate on making the tax system less complicated.

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  1. […] not just about women being able to spend time with their children. As I have outlined in a previous post, men would also like to spend time with their children, and men would like to be able to choose to […]

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