National Study Reveals Cracks in Legal Workplace Culture: Time for Answers

Startling research by the Law Council of Australia has painted a picture of the legal profession as one where bullying and gender-based discrimination are at high levels. Survey respondents also reported high turnover due to discontent with legal workplace culture, leadership and direction.

The Law Council of Australia’s National Report on attrition and re-engagement has shone a spotlight on the reasons why many women, and men, leave the profession and don’t return. Legal HR consultant Kriss Will who sat on the working party for the report, shares her thoughts on the implications for law firms.

High turnover due to discontent

Much has been made in the legal press about the results of the survey in relation to inappropriate and unlawful workplace behaviour. While the reports of workplace bullying and gender-based discrimination are shocking, they are also a symptom of a much deeper problem for the legal profession – a general dissatisfaction with legal workplace culture of today. This is evident in the turnover rate, which is high in the legal profession.

More than half of those surveyed by the Law Council reported having moved jobs in the past five years. The top three reasons given for making a change were discontent with legal workplace culture, discontent with leadership and the direction of the organisation, and the opportunity to do better-quality work elsewhere. Those responses were the same regardless of gender.

Future career intentions

Gone are the days when you joined a firm for life. More than a third of respondents were certain they’d move firms in the next five years, while another 29 per cent of women and 21 per cent of men said they would consider moving. The regrettable cost of turnover is well known and those costs will remain significant over the next five years.

Both male and female lawyers indicated that “better work-life balance” and “more interesting or varied work” would be key factors when making their next career move.

Inappropriate workplace behaviour

As publicised, 50 per cent of women and 38 per cent of men reported workplace bullying, while a staggering 47 per cent of women reported gender-based discrimination.

Women also reported being discriminated against on the basis of family and carer duties at a higher rate (27 per cent, compared with 11 per cent for men). A quarter of female respondents reported sexual harassment, compared with 8 per cent for men. Women also felt more frequently discriminated against due to age (35 per cent of women and 25 per cent of men).

Those results, while self-reported, are unacceptably high by any measure. As a comparison for bullying at work, 20 per cent of Victorian public servants and around 14 to 15 per cent of the broader Victorian workforce reported experiencing bullying at work, according to research by the Victorian Public Sector Commission

What action can firms take to improve these outcomes?

In my view, this is not a call for more policies. Rather, it’s about creating workplaces that are productive and safe. Workplaces where employees are treated with respect, given interesting work and aligned with the direction of the firm. Where employees are empowered to manage the tensions of work commitments and personal commitments.

Firms would do well to focus on these key areas when considering talent attraction and retention.

As a starting point, you could assess your firm on the following:

  • Do our partners/leaders have and consistently exhibit good people-management skills?
  • How effective is our approach to actively sponsoring rather than passively mentoring our talented people? Here’s a good resource from Workplace Gender Equality Agency to help you start thinking about sponsorship.
  • Do our people understand our direction and how they can play a role in achieving this?
  • How well has the business harnessed technology to enable flexible and productive work-life balance for all our staff (not just the part-timers)?
  • Do we have fair and robust approaches to address staff concerns?

Ultimately, the day-to-day workplace experience is a human one, and making sure that those in power act in a way to support and lead a good legal workplace culture is essential. Everything else is wallpaper that will soon peel away to show the cracks.


2014 Law Council Australia National Report on attrition and re-engagement

Kriss Will founded her people management consultancy after working in HR and general management roles in law firms.  She provides management advice and conducts training & development workshops for law firms across Australia. Known as a practical advisor and an engaging presenter, Kriss draws on her day to day management experiences to offer practical solutions to people management challenges and helps businesses generate ideas to improve the ways they work.

Kriss’ completed her MBA with a focus on human resource management. She writes regularly on people management topics for a number of publications. Kriss is active within a number of professional associations including serving on a number of Law Council of Australia and Law Institute of Victoria executives and committees, as well as being a founding member of Victorian Women Lawyers Assoc, Australian Legal Practice Management Assoc and HRMinds.

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