Measuring productivity by time rather than work achieved can be difficult for the flexible worker, especially when such billable units are expected to be completed during traditional work hours.
According to a major report released by the Law Council of Australia on Friday, women have accounted for almost 60% of all solicitors admitted over the past decade, yet are still half as likely as men to reach partnership. It’s hardly surprising that one source of major dissatisfaction and reason why women leave the profession is still the billable hour.
Fiona McLeod SC went so far as to describe the profession as a “men’s only club” while discussing the new research, with the report also highlighting an alarming rate of bullying, discrimination and harassment.
But despite these systemic issues regarding women in law, the legal sector is experiencing a renaissance, led especially by women. We’re seeing nimble, female led start-ups propping up in the legal space. Many are being formed by women who’ve rejected the big law structure to work their own way. Others by those who’ve recently had children and are looking to supplement part-time work or earn an income while managing the bulk of the child caring duties.
Lawyers Jane Wright and Lauren Barel had plans to take their job-sharing arrangement all the way to the partnership at their former top-tier lawyer, but found family commitments and existing internal policies at the firm stood in the way.
So in 2013, they launched Workdynamic Australia, continuing their job-sharing arrangement while running their own firm specialising in workplace investigations, employment and advisory work. They took one key client across with them, and have since enjoyed significant revenue growth.
Meanwhile, Laura Vickers works two days a week as a lawyer in the public sector. Although her employer’s been supportive of her flexible work needs, she looked for ways to supplement her part time income and work additional hours around her toddler’s nap times.
So she launched Nest Legal, an online law firm run from her kitchen table. She meets clients over Skype – usually other women and often during non-office hours to cater for their own needs – drafting wills or assisting with dispute resolutions strategies. She also engages barristers (again often women with caring responsibilities) to provide court-coaching services to self-represented litigants.
She says the business model allows her to practise law in a meaningful way while raising a young family – an issue addressed in the Law Council’s report which found stalled progression to senior levels due to family responsibilities was a key issue for women, a problem that could be better addressed with flexible working arrangements.
But she adds the online firm can offer much more to time-poor women. Last year the Centre for Innovative Justice identified major issues regarding the ability of “ordinary Australians” to access legal services, particularly due to the costs involved. Vickers believes her firm can not only keep costs down but also assist those who can’t access such services during “regular” hours. “It is often simply not practical for someone who is balancing work or running a small business with family responsibilities to take time off or organise additional childcare to visit a solicitor in traditional working hours, particularly if they live in a rural area,” she says. “So they go without. Infringements incorrectly issued are never challenged, Wills are never drafted, small business advice never sought, self-represented litigants battle blindly through the court system.”
Leonie Chapman also runs a virtual law firm for small businesses, Lawyal Solicitors. Using her own bespoke web platform, the firm doesn’t need to charge clients unnecessary overheads and gives Leonie the flexibility she needs to raise her two children.
Technology has long been evening the playing field for those looking to run businesses on their own time and in their own way.
It seems the legal profession is finally catching up – and women are leading the change.