Ellie Dudley | Source: The Australian, Tuesday, December 1, 2023 | ‘Women in, men out’

For Clayton Utz’s first female chief executive partner, achieving gender parity is simple: “It’s about more women coming in and more men going out.”

Emma Covacevich, who has “diversity and inclusion” written in bold across the top of her lengthy agenda to shake up the 190-year-old firm, admits it may be a “crude” way of looking at the problem but says the firm needs to be making more “conscious decisions” when it comes to hiring.

“But also we need to be making those decisions in a way that doesn’t disengage our male employees,” she says. “That’s a challenging issue because we’ve got so many good guys coming through and we want to make sure there are career opportunities for them as well.”

It’s a challenge on the minds of legal business leaders everywhere and Covacevich is hardly alone in trying to tackle the issue of how to drag up female representation across the workplace.

The Australian’s Legal Partnership Survey, released on Tuesday, reveals the number of female lawyers slowly is creeping upwards, with women representing 33 per cent of partners (up 2 per cent on last year), 61 per cent of graduates (up 0.1 per cent) and 29 per cent of equity partners (up 2 per cent). But the issue poses a unique challenge for Clayton Utz.

While the company’s female graduate representation was reported at 3 per cent above average (65 per cent), the percentage of female partners was 4 per cent below (29 per cent), despite the firm being 1 per cent up from six months ago. Covacevich, who is only three weeks into her job, is well aware of the shortfall. “Where there is an opportunity for us to do better is obviously in our female partner numbers,” she says. “Again, that’s around making conscious decisions, and the numbers will settle as some of our older male partners retire.”

Having begun her career with Clayton Utz in 1999 as an articled clerk, Covacevich was one of the youngest employees to be appointed partner, at 29.

After a stint as general counsel of Australia Pacific LNG from 2011 to 2013, she returned to the firm and became one of her predecessor Bruce Cooper’s two deputy chief executives. The other was Douglas Bishop, brother of former foreign minister Julie Bishop who was a senior member of the firm before pursuing her political career.

As leader, Covacevich is looking to improve the overall culture, image and position of the firm. She is careful to state her concrete plans but she mentions a rebrand may be in the works. Asked whether she is concerned about a chicken-or-egg scenario where fewer women apply to Clayton Utz because fewer women are employed there, Covacevich replies: “I’m absolutely concerned.”

“If we don’t get diversity and inclusion right, then we’re just not an attractive proposition,” she says. “The benefits of diversity are well understood, and anyone who doesn’t think that is a dinosaur.

“The ability for us to equip top quality legal work and to mesh and gel with our clients very much depends on the fact we have a workforce that looks like our clients, that thinks like our clients or thinks a little bit different to our clients. If we don’t get that right, and it’s the same with any firm, then it doesn’t make us very attractive at all.

“That’s not why we’re doing it, we’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do, but there’s a number of flow-on effects.”


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