Female lawyers first victims of downturn

By Legal Eagle

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.


  1. Posted December 12, 2008 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately this is correct, although it’s strange considering that women entrants to the legal profession outnumber men I believe. What one does see is a greater number of women leaving private practice for inhouse positions where time management is more practical. But there too in the credit crisis, legal departments are seen as overheads to be trimmed in these lean times.

  2. conrad
    Posted December 13, 2008 at 5:02 am | Permalink

    “gender targets would force a change in the culture of the law, but I think more is needed”

    I dislike the idea of gender targets (and racial targets — some places in the US are especially keen on this), excluding a few jobs where reasonable arguments might be made that it is really beneficial in terms of overall skills in a workforce (e.g., police, some community work). It often leads to incompetent people in higher positions than competent ones, which has negative consequences in the short and the long term. In the short term, it creates resentment since competent people need to work with incompetent ones, and in the long term, excellent people not in the chosen group will migrate away to other jobs. Would you like me to be your boss simply because you happen to be white and I’m not, even if I’m incomptent? In addition, since promoting people that shouldn’t be there costs money, these targets are mainly set in organizations with little accountability (e.g., the public service), which makes these organizations worse through not fault of their own.

  3. Posted December 13, 2008 at 5:43 am | Permalink

    Hi LE

    I felt for this post because, as you know, I am a male who chose the primary child care role.

    There is no easy solution. Here there are two quite distinct problems.

    The first is the working enviroment question. The second is the keeping in touch question.

    Again speaking as a male, I found the second more important because being out of the loop is a killer for any professional.

  4. Posted December 13, 2008 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    Agree with Conrad — please, no affirmative action. I agree with everything you say about ‘firm culture’, but providing regimes that people can ‘game’ (such as affirmative action) is not the answer. The change has to come from lawyers themselves — and perhaps the market. I’ve heard a few comments around the place that even big corporates aren’t copping the ‘billable hours’ tango these days. They want a ‘quote’ (aka pre-estimate of costs) up front and are quite happy to take their work elsewhere unless they get a good deal. This is one recession where even the lawyers are copping it (well, at least in the City).

  5. Posted December 14, 2008 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    We have a few female lawyers at my work one of whom fled law firm culture. I’ll pass on your blog address.

  6. John Greenfield
    Posted January 13, 2009 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    Well I look forward to the Luvvies demanding abandonment of the minimum wage or a wage freeze so that Australia can “meet its international obligations”! Last month, Shazza Burrow stunned us all once more with her sagacity, thundering

    Article 23 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work, and to protection against unemployment.

    Someone should warn La Shazz to be careful what she wishes for.


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