Jill Rowbotham | Source: The Australian, Thursday, June 9, 2022 | LEGAL PARTNERSHIP SURVEY

Law firms are reaching for more sophisticated structural and cultural solutions as they attempt to transform their enduring failure to promote enough women into a 21st century success story.

Across the 50 firms in The Australian Legal Partnership Survey, women made up 31.9 per cent of full-time-equivalent partners, a weighted average increase of 0.31 per cent in the 12 months to July 1, which compares favourably to overall FTE partnership growth of 0.11 per cent. In the same period, growth in women FTE fee earners was 0.39 per cent and for graduates it was 1.26 per cent.

At top leadership level, nine of the firms surveyed had a woman in the managing partner role or, in the case of Banki Haddock Fiora’s Kate Haddock, as a co-founding partner.

Equity partner information showed the proportion of women across 43 of the firms surveyed at 27.48 per cent.

Partnership targets of 40 per cent women, 40 per cent men and 20 per cent of any gender are common now, although not universal, and deadlines for achieving that mix are not uniformly ambitious.

Some energetic attempts to institutionalise diversity and inclusion (D&I) are apparent, driven by a strong business case for doing so, the reputational risk for firms that drag their feet, and the imperative to maximise appeal to young, talented women.

Examples abound but they include Colin Biggers & Paisley, with its transparent path-to-partnership program, and Sparke Helmore, where 75 per cent of partners promoted in 2021 were women. The firm has formal programs including mentoring, leadership, a gender equality network and a D&I advisory committee.

At Norton Rose Fulbright, there is a formal sponsorship program to ease the passage of lawyers to junior partner and partner level, “to ensure women continue to succeed in building their practices and careers”, chief executive partner Alison Deitz says.

KPMG Law has introduced a “bias disrupter” to its annual performance reviews, who national leader Kate Marshall says “acts as an independent observer and will challenge and test us if we are bringing bias into the considerations and assessments”.

DLA Piper Australian managing partner Amber Matthews says its aim is to make the path to partnership “more achievable and desirable for women”.

“It should be a role that more of our women lawyers want to perform,” Matthews says. “We collaborate with key executive search firms and recruitment partners who … are committed to supporting us in achieving our goals.”

At Mills Oakley, five of seven new partners and four of six new equity partners are women. This signals commitment to a “transparent, merits-based promotions process, applying vigilance to ensure [there are] no arbitrary or systemic barriers to advancement and to enable talent to be recognised at all levels”, chief executive John Nerurker says.

At Maddocks, chief executive David Newman attributes a doubling of the proportion of women in the partnership – from 18 per cent to 38 per cent in about a decade – to five initiatives.

These are: setting targets, the adoption of D&I as a “lens” through which all aspects of the firm is viewed, an annual gender pay-gap analysis that is also reported to the board, formal career development programs and public advocacy for equality.

Firms with pay transparency include Lander & Rogers. This includes pay-review processes, a gender pay-gap analysis to measure and monitor equity, and the removal of pay-secrecy clauses from employment contracts.

This is to “promote candid conversations about salaries with a view to minimising gender pay disparity”, chief executive partner Genevieve Collins says.

PwC Australia is also among firms with pay transparency, which legal leader Nick Brown says enables “our people to better understand where they sit now as well as to see the full range of possibilities throughout their career”.

“Within the legal business, the talent pipeline for partners is closely managed through quarterly pipeline reviews and succession planning,” he says.

Aside from remuneration and career pathways, firms are tidying up parental leave, making it gender neutral, paying superannuation on the unpaid as well as paid parental leave, and being flexible about what is demanded of parents returning to the workforce.

Firms that are offering parental leave coaching to help lawyers plan for and cope with the adjustment to juggling parenthood and work include Allens, which achieved 37 per cent women partners last year and is aiming for at least 40 per cent by 2025.

Covid and the lockdowns complicated matters but also increased firms’ awareness of the pressures on lawyers.

“We became aware that there was a gendered trend, reinforcing our broader societal experience of women with caring responsibilities of children, elder care and, more broadly, bearing more of the responsibilities,” Sparke Helmore national managing partner Andrew White says.

“(So) we evolved our approach to our wellbeing programs to support people to tap into the mental health resources, online physical wellbeing programs, children’s activities, and … flexible working, aiming for a suite of choices that best suit personal circumstances.”

Wotton + Kearney, which hired its first head of D&I in October, also sees gains. “In our view, our post-pandemic workplaces – and, most notably, the role of our flex policy – will assist in achieving our gender-diversity targets because of its inclusive nature,” chief executive partner David Kearney says.

HFW’s global D&I committee is chaired by the head of its Sydney office, Carolyn Chudleigh, and at McCabes two of its three divisions are led by women. This is to “show women that they can and will be recognised as leaders in senior and important roles”, managing principal Andrew Lacey says.

Russell Kennedy Lawyers is among firms recognised as an employer of choice for gender equality by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, in its case for the fifth straight year.

It has hit the 40 per cent women partners target, with women equity partners at 30 per cent of all of its equity partners. “We continue to take deliberate, strategic actions to drive positive change towards gender equality,” its managing director Paul Gleeson says.


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