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Women aren’t broken. Law firms are.

A new report by the Law Society of NSW was launched in Sydney yesterday by The Honourable Justice Julie Ward, putting the advancement of women in the legal profession under the spotlight. Unfortunately much of its findings read like another how-to guide for “fixing the women”; whereas very little has been said about the culture and leadership that fails to fully harness the value and opportunity that women lawyers present. 

The report shows that – despite a 451% increase in the number of women solicitors since 1988 and women now comprising almost 60% of all new admissions – one in four young women will leave private practice  within 5 years of admission and fewer than 20% of all partners and principles are women. In other words, there’s no shortage of talented women entering the profession; but the firms where they work have been ineffective in retaining and developing these women into the leadership ranks.

I should say this is in no way intended as a criticism of the President of the NSW Law Society, Stuart Westgarth, and his research team who produced the report and put the gender agenda firmly on the table.   Westgarth in championing this research has raised the bar and is to be commended.

It’s just that the report reads like… well… it reads like it’s been written by lawyers. 

In other words, a lot of careful language is used to describe a complex situation in simplistic terms, without pointing any fingers of blame and so as to avoid any potential embarrassment, liability or unintended offense. 


The report sets no expectations of gender balanced leadership on firms; no targets or definitions of success; and has levelled very little responsibility for improving the status quo.  As such, I would say it’s created a frame of reference (yet again) that it’s the behaviours of women that are letting them down, not the cultures and behaviours institutionalised within their workplaces.


The report shows that in 2010:

  • female practitioners comprised almost 60% of new admissions to the profession;
  • 41% of private practitioners, 54% of corporate lawyers and 63% of government solicitors are women;
  • more young women solicitors are leaving private practice than young men, with one in four new entrants exiting private practice within 5 years; and
  • just under 20% of partnerships in private practice are held by women. 


That this data is now publicly available is an excellent starting point for the legal profession in Australia; the challenge now though is to extend the analysis to more practical depths to drive change, and to get serious about implementing retention and development strategies.


The research methodology in this report overlays the findings of focus groups with some 100 women lawyers and data from the Society’s membership base covering a broad spectrum of data (except for data that doesn’t look particularly good on paper – like the percentage of women in partnerships which I had to calculate myself!) to arrive at 22 tips for practitioners and practices. 

Critically though, the methodology did not include interviews with women who had left the profession or with men who hold 80% of partnership and principal positions, and who, after all, are the ones who decide whether or not women advance in the first place.  I would have to say that conducting focus groups exclusively with women encumbents and asking them to explain why they’re not promoted to leadership roles – in an environment where they have very little control over the process – is a bit like asking the passengers to steer the bus: it’s almost impossible for them to do it when they’re simply not in the driver’s seat. 

And it would be a good
starting point for these men to become more
engaged in the debate sooner rather than later.  That I counted only 8
men in the 160-seat audience at the report’s launch is not only
disappointing; it also sends a clear message to the women in the room,
whether intentional or

Also for a study entitled “Thought Leadership2011: Advancement of women in the profession”, it’s a little disappointing.  Some of the ‘Tips for Practitioners’ read like motherhood statements (Tip 11: “Be brave. Work out what you want and ask for it.” – in my experience women know what they want and that’s why they leave firms – through pure frustration) while others seem to fly in the face of the inherent bias and discrimination many women report to me of life in a law firm (Tip 3.  “Plan ahead for career breaks.  Start talking to your employer early on….” – why would you do this, if it’s likely to put you on the mummy track before you’ve even taken parental leave…)

As for the Tips for practices – these recommendations indicate just how much work needs to be done in the profession.  (Tip 2: “Think about the needs of staff returning to work after career breaks” isn’t going to cut it – you’ll actually need to facilitate seamless offramping and onramping, thinking isn’t enough!)  The report confirms what we already know: women lawyers are flocking to in-house corporate and government roles where they report greater satisfaction with workplace culture and fit – so a good and logical question is what could private practice learn from that?  (Hint re Tip 8: “Consider establishing an in-house mentoring program” – the corporates that are poaching your top talent have been doing this for years…)

This report is definitely worth a read (click here to download as PDF) and a good starting point for further research to build on.  What the legal profession needs to do now is to address the elephant in the room, and really get a grip on why law firms simply aren’t a place that many women can ascend to great heights in their careers. 

My advice to the firms:  The women aren’t broken and don’t need more tips for success; but in the context of gender balance, law firms certainly do.


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