Women lawyers are making significant strides in the in-house legal world, according to new research by the Australian Corporate Lawyers Association and the Corporate Lawyers Association of New Zealand.
The 2015 In-House report shows that although women continue to be severely underrepresented in the senior ranks of most sections of the legal industry, their representation is growing rapidly within in-house legal teams.
The report found that 42% of the 351 companies surveyed had a woman holding the very top position in the in-house legal team, up from 38% in the previous report in 2012.
The number of women in top in-house legal jobs is highest in public unlisted companies, at 51%, up from 42% in the 2012. The next highest is publicly listed companies, up 6% to 36% in 2015. Government organisations had the lowest female representation in top in-house legal roles, at 33%.
These figures do not represent the desired outcome of total gender parity, but they come close – especially compared to the figures for the rest of the legal profession. Women currently make up only 19% of the Australian Bar and just 6% of the top barrister roles of Queen’s Counsel and Senior Counsel. Similarly, women make up only 19% of senior positions in corporate law firms.
These figures are even worse for the rest of the corporate sector, where women make up less than 10% of executive positions in ASX 200 companies.
So why is the in-house legal sector doing so much better than both the legal industry broadly and the whole of the corporate world?
Australian Corporate Lawyers Association CEO Trish Hyde says it all comes down to flexible work. As with many industries, it seems the availability of flexible work options within the in-house sector is encouraging and supporting more women in their rise to the senior ranks.
An amazing 91% of in-house legal teams have at least one staff member working flexibly.
“We know from experience that flexible work arrangements are a factor in women’s career progression. The 2015 In-house counsel report confirms this, with 91% of in-house teams reporting that they have staff on flexible work options,” Hyde said.
“Whether it’s through job-sharing, working part-time, or staggered hours, it’s important that organisations support lawyers who are seeking to combine family responsibilities with a challenging career. “
Hyde said this commitment to flexibility is the key to retaining women in leadership roles.
“Ultimately, it’s good for business as it keeps talented employees committed, engaged and performing at a very high level.”
In 2012, there were not only fewer women heading up in-house legal teams, but the women who were in the top jobs were running smaller teams for smaller companies. But this is not the case in 2015 – 52% of companies with turnover of $1 billion or more had a woman heading uptheir in-house counsel.
But there are still roadblocks for women in in-house legal teams – despite the provision of flexibility, in-house lawyers are still working overtime, which stagnates progress towards a truly accommodating workforce for women. Lawyers holding the position of General Counsel are working an average of 33 hours of overtime every month, according to the report.
“Workload and budgetary pressures will inevitably be high in in-house teams as organisations are expected to do more with less in tight economic times,” Hyde said.
“While there’s no magic bullet, it’s likely that general counsel and in-house teams that strive to align the legal function with the business, engage positively with stakeholders, apply good practice management techniques and consistently measure and demonstrate their value, will be more successful at alleviating some of those pressures.”
Of course, we didn’t need convincing that flexible work holds the key to women’s workforce participation, but those industries dragging their heels on flexibility could certainly learn a thing or two from these findings.