Some law firms are more successful than others when it comes to retaining and progressing women. So what should law firms be doing to help make equal opportunity par for the course.

This story was written by Helen Borger and first published in the March 2014 Law Society Journal. It is reproduced with the permission of the Law Society of New South Wales.

The proportion of women working in law firms has grown, but the structures in many of these firms are taking longer to adapt, says Women Lawyers Association of NSW president Natasha Walls. In particular, faster change is necessary to retain young female lawyers and speed up the progression of women to partnership level.

The most recent data from the Law Society of NSW shows that in 2012 women made up 41 per cent of lawyers working in private practice. In the same year the same proportion of women were appointed as first-time principals. Nevertheless, women only accounted for 23.3 per cent of all principals and more young women left private practice than young men.

The 2013 law firm comparison statistics from the association show that in firms with the highest proportion of female partners, around 35 per cent of the partners are women. Also, the association says the 12 law firms above the NSW benchmark of 23.3 per cent female partners (determined by the Law Society’s statistics) are generally improving their level of female representation. But many of the 30 firms below the benchmark are not improving and eight firms have gone backwards since 2012.

Reality check

Walls tells LSJ that law firms remain rigid and still hold to traditions designed to meet the traditional family model. It is up to partners and senior lawyers to recognise that very few lawyers today fit that mould. Ultimately, successful firms will realise that to retain top talent and engage their people they must be able to change to meet their needs, rather than the other way around, she explains. This re-think of firm structures and processes is an exercise in agility, there is no doubt it would enable more women to rise to the top, but it would also make firms more competitive in the process, she says.

Flexible working practices are viewed as a key factor in retaining lawyers and assisting progression. Many firms already have these polices – but this is just a first step. Culture and the mind-set also have to change, Walls says. “It’s not a HR box-ticking exercise.”

Unless flexibility practices are genuine, women who take advantage of them can be consciously or unconsciously passed over when it comes to the all-important file allocations. For example, some leaders may think: “Mary works flexibly so won’t be able to do the big jobs”, she says.

Firms must tackle this bias – in particular, the unconscious bias. Walls recommends training because it is a simple process with a significant impact. “It is about creating awareness of hidden stereotypes and prejudices and how they impact on decision making. Its objective is to train men and women to be mindful of the factors that are guiding their decision making on a day-to-day basis.”

It helps with merit-based selection by encouraging leaders to think about how hidden biases may be impacting their organisation and to make changes, she says, such as asking different questions in recruitment or setting different measures of achievement in promotion.

Walls questions the need for quotas and candidate targets to overcome impediments to progression. Personally, she feels such factors are counter-intuitive because they isolate women from men and raise questions about the ability of women to do the job.

But she does advocate changes to billable hours. When looking to fill leadership roles, many partners look at financial results so lawyers working shorter hours or on other projects can miss out, Walls says.

Law firms, of course, need to make a profit, but by moving to billing models that value contributions rather than hours spent at a desk could help unlock significant female leadership talent as well as boost client relationships and improve the way lawyers practice generally. “The law in large part is about client service as well as technical knowledge, so lawyers also need to be able to communicate effectively and sell,” she says. Law firms need to value financial and non-financial contributions.

Mentoring and networking are also fundamental to success in law firms. Mentoring programs must be “championed from the top down and both men and women are involved,” Walls says. Also, networking opportunities for women and men should be facilitated during business hours.

To assess progress, firms should “be setting specific and measurable targets in respect to promotion, pay equity and flexibility”, she says. The results need to be used “to learn what is working and what is not so that efforts can constantly be tweaked and tailored”.

Ultimately, it’s about creating genuinely flexible businesses that have adaptive and agile company cultures. Research shows that such businesses perform better financially then rigid cultures, Walls adds.

Spirit of diversity

One law firm that is serious about gender diversity is Gilbert + Tobin (G+T). It employs 520 people; 70 of them are partners. As of November, 36 per cent of its partners were female.

G+T’s head of people and culture Robyn Whittaker tells LSJ the proportion of female partners has hovered between 35 and 37 per cent over the past six years, and given the firm’s growth in recent years maintaining this level is very pleasing.

She says G+T has always had a high proportion of women in leadership roles. She puts it down to the mind-set of the founding partners and the fact that there is a high proportion of female partners, which fosters an environment which actively promotes women. G+T also has a track record of retaining female leaders, in fact, 12 of the firm’s female partners have been with the firm since 2000.


To facilitate the participation of women (and men), G+T offers a number of flexible work initiatives, such as job share, transition to work after parental leave, part-time work and a family room.

It also takes a flexible approach to billable hours, allowing fee earners to consider how they want to work on return from parental leave. For example, a lawyer might seek to not carry a full load in terms of required hours and budget to enable greater flexibility, Whittaker says.

The decision to grant flexible arrangements is based on a range of factors: the group’s current structure and requirements, performance, carer’s responsibilities and other needs at the time of the request. She says accommodating greater flexibility is easier in some areas of the law than in others but that G+T is open-minded and tries to consider options. G+T really wants to promote more job-sharing among fee-earners, where two people work at a similar level of capability and together perform and are seen as one role, she adds.

Flexibility doesn’t affect promotion. “Some lawyers have been promoted while on parental leave,” she says. “But if a person steps out of a role for a number of years they can’t expect to progress at the same rate as someone who remains.”


G+T steers away from gender quotas, targets and key performance indicators when considering promotions. But those working for the firm are always mindful of the firm’s history in ensuring gender diversity and HR helps keep the business accountable, Whittaker says.

Formal promotion processes are in place – there are no ‘taps on the shoulder’ at G+T.

For promotions below partner level, the process “considers all lawyers, where we discuss and compare individual performance based on merit; this considers metrics, technical strength, broader contribution, leadership …”, she says. “And this is done in a wide process of consultation with partners within practice groups and then across the firm as a further test.”

Promotion to partner or special counsel also involves a formal process, Whittaker explains, where candidates must demonstrate an ability to build and sustain a practice, meet the firm’s high performance expectations, present to the board and be sponsored by the firm’s existing partners.

“We conduct extensive gender analysis on remuneration and promotions testing for gender equality which goes to the board in the lead-up to reviews”, she says. The board has also agreed to include gender diversity as a recurring agenda item and will give gender equality particular focus at several of its meetings each year, she adds.

As networking is also important to success in any legal firm, G+T runs courses for women to increase their voice and presence and be more confident, she says. Individual leadership development, using 360 degree feedback and targeted coaching, is provided to women and men as well.

Ultimately, Walls and Whittaker agree it’s not just about a linear path to partnership for women or men.

“It is about uncovering the multiple pathways to get where you want to be at each stage of your career,” Walls says.

Whittaker says G+T recognises the different life stages and challenges facing its people and reviews and seeks to improve its policies which support women and men and the juggling they do.

This story was written by Helen Borger and first published in the March 2014 Law Society Journal. It is reproduced with the permission of the Law Society of New South Wales.

This story was updated on 15 May 2014

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