Although the majority of law graduates are female, there are few women at the top of the legal profession. Where do these women go? What stops women in law from rising to partner?
Attracting women in law profession doesn’t appear to be a problem. Just over 61 per cent of law graduates are female, and more women are entering law firms than ever before. The difficulty seems to be in retaining female lawyers and finding them in the upper echelons of the profession. Only 23 per cent of women make partner in top-tier corporate law firms, 18 per cent in mid-tier and 17 per cent in small firms. And only 16 per cent of the Federal Court bench is female.
These figures represent what appears to be a glass ceiling across the legal industry. Until a concerted effort is made to redress the imbalance, that ceiling is likely to remain in place.
The underlying problem
The pillars holding up this potential ceiling are complex, multifaceted and somewhat controversial. Some critics cite the remnants of an “old-boys’ network” that spans the profession and creates an almost impenetrable male-centric hierarchy. This links to suggestions that blatant sexism still exists in the profession. The legal world is rife with anecdotal accounts of derogatory comments, sexual humour and repeated questions about women’s commitment to the practice. 
Other commentators opine that what really holds women back is their own lack of confidence, which prevents large numbers of female lawyers from seeking promotion and quashes the ambition to fill senior roles.
Then there’s the issue of culture within law firms, which is regarded by some as being innately unkind to women. Speaking at the Women in Law Leadership Summit in Sydney last year, Sharon Cook, managing partner at Henry Davis York, spoke of the need for a culture change. She comments, the 24/7 work ethic is considered outdated and sets working mothers up to fail. “Women who have succeeded have done so in spite of the culture, not because of it,” she said. 
And that could well be the greatest barrier to lasting and genuine change. That inflexibility of the working environment and the incompatibility between work and home life can make all the difference to advancement.
What can legal firms do?
Firms need to pounce on the first hints of prejudice, and ensure strict policies on equality in the workplace are adhered to. More firms should be striving to implement family-friendly practices, to facilitate flexible working hours and remote access, so that women have the opportunity to thrive in the law. And having the right attitude is essential.
“Our firm has a really good attitude to all female staff who go on maternity leave and all parents generally,” says Madeleine Perrignon, partner at TurksLegal. “Our attitude is let’s make it work for the benefit of both the firm and the staff member.”
At the Summit, Cook spoke of firms needing to take responsibility for the number of women in leadership roles, and of the need for processes that ensure real diversity.“Firms need KPIs and targets about women in senior positions; leaders need to be held accountable about the promotion of women in their organisations.”
What can women do to get ahead?
Tackling confidence issues is essential – something Cook also covered. “Belief barriers are very significant for women in the law I believe; we have to stop doubting ourselves.” Female lawyers must acknowledge the importance of self-promotion in the law, and must advocate for themselves if they are to advance.
“The best advice is to take a breath and speak up,” says Perrignon. “In my experience, men are sometimes overly confident, and women lack confidence when they really should be speaking up. Once you speak, people become aware of you. Once they become aware of you, opportunity can follow.”
More female lawyers should see themselves as leaders. And rather than settling for secondary roles, more women should show off their leadership skills and make sure that their seniors recognise their commitment, motivation and competence.
When considering which firm to join, it would be prudent for women lawyers to seek out the more progressive firms with flexible working arrangements. Be sure that the culture of the firm is a good fit. For those with families, that flexibility could be the key.
The real solution to the gender imbalance, however, is to change the system, not the women in it. The industry needs a conscious and measurable strategy for promoting women in law – not just for the good of female lawyers, but also for the good of the firms.
1 Why women can’t get ahead in law firms, Daily Life – 26 Sep 2013
2 Law is failing and hurting women, Lawyers Weekly – 14 March 2014
3 ‘Woeful’ percentage of female legal leaders, Lawyers Weekly, – 12 September 2013