Dear Legal Profession: I stole your women

Shane Budden
Mar 15, 2017 · 5 min read

(and I’m not the only one)

A source of constant consternation for the legal profession is that, in spite of the large numbers of women who commence law as a career, there is a persistent paucity of female partners in law firms.

The causes for this are likely myriad — and sadly, there is no doubt that sexism will be one of them — but it is also the case that women are abandoning pursuit of partnership because many of them get a better offer; I know, because I used to be the one making it.

Some background

Prior to moving to Queensland Law Society, I ran a large in-house legal team for the Queensland building regulator in its various incarnations. One of the big challenges was always attracting highly skilled people while shackled by award-determined salaries, which were as a rule well below market for solicitors. Anyone who has had to run a legal team in a government or government-like environment will be familiar with this problem.

Although I could not offer competitive pay, I did have some things going for me — flexitime, leave loading (which gives you an increased rate of pay when you take holidays) and great maternity leave conditions. This allowed me to attract people who were looking for a work environment that was flexible, which mostly translated into people with families.

In theory, flexible starting and finishing times and the ability to take flex days allows an employee (male or female) to pick kids up from kindy, attend parent-teacher interviews and be one of the parents who goes on school camp — and people will lower their salary expectations in exchange for these conditions.

In practice, flexitime was hardly ever an option. My team did high-volume litigation, in which they had to do the preparation — interview witnesses, draft documents, etcetera — and run the matters in courts themselves, cross-examining people and making submissions.

Anyone who has ever done court work knows how much time it takes, and zipping off early to watch the kids run on sports day simply isn’t an option. It still made enough of a difference to enable me to attract some excellent male solicitors too, but the reality is that my big drawcard was maternity leave, meaning my team skewed 60 to 70% female at any given time.

The combination proved to be an excellent one, with my team being successful in 85 to 90% of administrative reviews and close on 100% of prosecutions/disciplinary actions in any given year. Much of that success was due to the fact that my staff (male and female) were trading pay for conditions, and I was able to keep hold of great lawyers while underpaying them — not usually a viable option in the private world.

Eventually, however, reality had to kick in, in the form of the award-based pay scheme. An award pulls the top down and the bottom up, so it became harder to hold on to experienced lawyers as the gap between their pay and the offers from private practice grew (and the great maternity leave conditions had served their purpose).

So why didn’t my experienced, competent female solicitors, with children now at a more manageable age, run back into the arms of the firms that had been trying to headhunt them for years?

A better offer

Answer: They had been exposed to a better career path in the world of management in the public sector. By moving into the ranks of management, they could increase income while avoiding the need to do casework or become a slave to the billable hour. What’s more, junior positions could lead to senior positions, some of which give the remuneration of salaried partners a good run for its money.

For example, middle managers in the Queensland public service can expect to earn around the $120 000 mark, and executive managers $130 000 at the low end and over $200 000 in the higher ranks; some of these positions also come with work-supplied vehicles. These sorts of figures would make most sole practitioners salivate, but even some partners in large firms will be looking at them with envy.

The study and practice of law provides people with the skills and experience that can help them thrive in management in the public sector, and women are clearly better represented in those ranks than they are around the boardroom table at many large law firms. Women are attracted to the public sector for the initial conditions, but many stay because they rise through the ranks into jobs that are at least as attractive as partnership.

The clincher, of course, is that taking a break from public sector positions — through maternity leave, long service or unpaid leave — generally does not drop you in rank. If you go on maternity leave as a team leader or manager, you come back as one; your clients haven’t gone elsewhere and you have not slipped down the greasy pole.

I ask any partners reading this: Can you offer a female lawyer the chance to do influential and important work, to be well rewarded without the stress of billing, to take maternity leave without losing status and, every now and then, to watch the kids perform in the school band?

Fighting back

OK, so what can the average law firm do to stop losing great female lawyers to the public service (and for that matter, private in-house teams)? Whilst what follows is not a panacea, experience suggests it is a good start:

1. Ask your female lawyers what they want — Perhaps startlingly obvious, nevertheless I have hired many excellent ladies who had never been asked what would keep them interested in the private sector; the answers may well surprise.

2. Create genuine flexitime — Many firms claim to have flexible working hours, but compared to the options in the public service (where time can be accrued and taken when needed) most fall short. Despite the fact that I have noted above that such schemes often aren’t realistic, genuine flexibility is always an advantage. You may be surprised just how much value a solicitor puts in being able to start late enough to drop the kids at school or fit in with a spouse’s shift-work.

3. Devise a real maternity leave scheme — That is, one where the maternity period does not retard the career of the person who takes it. Some firms are starting this, through a combination of technology, work-from-home schemes and stay-in-touch days, and they are keeping good staff as a result.

Simply put, law firms unable to offer up acceptable conditions to female solicitors — who will soon make up more than half of the profession — will lose them. If the private sector cannot provide what female lawyers want, the public sector will — and the legal profession will be the poorer for it.

Law Talk

Queensland Law Society advocates for good law, support good lawyers and always act in the public good. Law Talk is our publication where we share advice and thought pieces about working in the profession.

Shane Budden

Written by

Shane is an Ethics Solicitor (yes, there is such a thing) with Queensland Law Society and a freelance writer in his increasingly diminishing spare time.

Law Talk

Law Talk

Queensland Law Society advocates for good law, support good lawyers and always act in the public good. Law Talk is our publication where we share advice and thought pieces about working in the profession.