Women as Legal Leaders Makes Business Sense

Ilana Orlievsky
ECP LEGAL

Tuesday 20th June 2017

The current legal market is one in which law firms big and small are seeking to disrupt and innovate in order to prove their relevance. Given this attitude, why is it that a strong and thick glass ceiling still exists for women as they rise through the ranks of their respective law firms? And why is it that men are not better supported in balancing family and career?

A number of influential women are not afraid to speak out about these ‘unconscious biases’ in the profession. They are seeking to affect change from positions of seniority. But as they tell ECP Legal’s Ilana Orlievsky, affecting such change is not without its challenges.

Leading female legal figures are trying to affect change for the betterment of the whole profession, not just women. They see themselves as change agents, positively influencing the younger generation of lawyers on all fronts, including working hard to rectify the prejudice towards men working part time to share parental responsibilities.

I spoke to 25 exceptionally talented and influential senior female executives. Law firm leaders I spoke to included Sue Kench, Global Managing Partner at King & Wood Mallesons (KWM), Melinda Upton, Australian Co-Managing Partner at DLA Piper, Nikki Robinson, ­­­­National Real Estate Practice Group Leader at Clayton Utz, Virginia Briggs, Group Head of Minter Ellison’s NSW Government and Real Estate practices, and Maria O’Brien, Head of the Australian Restructuring & Insolvency group at Baker & McKenzie.

Other highly regarded law firm partners who participated included Joanne Draper of White & Case LLP, Tanya Denning of Ashurst, Bryony Binns of PwC Legal, Astrid Beemster of DLA Piper, Louise Massey of Dentons, Louella Stone of Minter Ellison, Lina Fischer and Carrie Rogers of Clayton Utz and Annette Hughes and Jaclyn Riley-Smith of Corrs Chambers Westgarth. I also spoke to such corporate counsel (GCs and Heads of Legal) heavyweights as Claire Bibby of Brookfield Property Partners, Sue Laver of Telstra, Helen Burgess (ex-NRMA), Joanna Brand of Jetstar, Mei Ramsay of Medibank, Lori Middlehurst of VMWare, Anna Lozynski of L’Oréal, Gillian Wong of St Barbara Ltd, Rachel Scanlon of Challenger Ltd and Shirley Chowdhary, CEO of The GO Foundation.

Two well-regarded senior male practitioners and propagators of gender diversity, Johnson Winter & Slattery partner and former Law Institute of Victoria president Reynah Tang and Damien Sullivan, Group General Counsel at Boral Limited, were also interviewed.

The findings reveal some fascinating insights into the attitudes and behaviours of law leaders towards diversity.

Not just rainmakers but authentic people leaders

A key theme that emerged in discussions with these women is that within their positions of seniority, they are very cognisant of leading by example. There was a level of consensus among the senior women that providing opportunities for below partner level lawyers was vital. Bringing them along to transactions so that they can “interact with people of influence within the profession” and “grow their network”, as well as being “real” and “human” with respect to your team were positive leadership practices.

Many of the interviewed senior law firm partners and GCs explained that their perspective on ‘leadership’ had changed with age and seniority. One General Counsel said: “As a manager, you are responsible for people and it is a huge challenge. You need to look after the younger generation.” Another noted: “With seniority, you are able to see the cultural and personal impact you can have on a team”.

There was also a belief that there is a whole lot more to being a senior member of the profession than just being a good lawyer.  A male GC suggested that he is “much more mindful of the fact that it is a responsibility and an opportunity to [affect] positive change.”

Opportunity and flexibility for all

The majority of female respondents maintain that flexibility is something they consciously give to both the female and male lawyers in their teams. While many senior female partners / General Counsel push very strongly for opportunities for female lawyers rising through the ranks, including recommending female colleagues for overseas secondments and ensuring that they are in the front line of transactions with their clients, they equally extend those attitudes and opportunities towards the men in their team. The difference, as one partner from a large global law firm pointed out, is that “the men will generally come to [her] with their ideas (regarding opportunities) while the women will be polite.”

Interestingly, the women who ensure flexible work arrangements and facilitate opportunities to all staff had worked with and were guided by what they call “male champions of change” throughout their careers. Likewise, the men that are described as ‘male champions of change’ often worked for female partners and GCs in their previous roles, many of whom positively influenced their now successful careers.

Prejudice cuts both ways

A key message that surfaced from these interviews was that when it comes to gender roles, the issue that greatly affected women’s ability to properly balance family and career was in fact the stigma associated with men working part time. All agreed that there was resistance, especially within the law, for male lawyers to work part time and take a larger role in the family unit. “Flexible work practices are not and should not be seen as something only women employees require”, one senior GC stated. In a situation where there are two professionals in a family unit, the woman is more likely to work part-time. “Even if the men wanted to work part time, they would feel they can’t.” In a similar vein, there is a bias towards males seeking to take long(er) paternity leave; there is an “inherent assumption that the males don’t need to take more time.”

Interviewees also reference societal expectations as playing a pivotal role in the still widely held belief that women are the primary caregivers. While we have come a long way in understanding that childbearing is in fact “a joint task”, and more men are seeking flexible work or extended periods of leave to look after children, there is still workplace and social bias that put men from seeking such arrangements. According to a BBC article in January 2017, males are finding that their place of work is often inflexible when it comes to flexible work arrangements.

“For many fathers, the workplace is unsupportive of their aspirations for a better work-life fit” with “nearly half of working fathers [desiring] a less stressful job so they can spend more time caring for their children,” said the article. The benefits to both families and companies as well as the overall economy of sharing parental responsibilities equally between mothers and fathers are clear.

Inherent assumptions surrounding this topic exacerbate the ‘unconscious bias’ problem. According to a Huffington Post article written by Shirley Chowdhary, lawyer and CEO of the GO Foundation, “until we remove the stigma that comes with the biological fact that women carry the children and give birth, we aren’t going to have a level playing field.” This needs to change, and employers need to do more to help ensure fathers who want to take a more active role in childcare can.

There is no reason why law firms cannot lead positive cultural change in this respect.

 Busy women resent being pushed into stereotypical maternal responsibilities in the office

A genuine complaint and concern among many of the women interviewed were the fact that they were being pigeonholed as the “nurturer” within their respective organisations. A common theme amongst the legal leaders I interviewed was that they were expected to do more of the unremunerated, soft-skill work than their male counterparts. One senior law firm executive explains that “there is a cohort of women below partner level as well as partners who get asked to do everything. They have more personal/people facing/cultural responsibilities being naturally assigned to them”.

Female lawyers said such ‘unconscious bias’ reinforces the notion that “this is the women’s role.” A senior partner and practice group head at a global law firm suggested that there is an “expectation of ‘showing [your] face’ [with regard to] networking, mentoring, leadership and other non-billable targets.”

 Out of sight, out of mind… Breaking the barriers to success post maternity leave    

The perennial issue of maternity leave and the impact on women of returning to law firms remains a major issue. Some senior female lawyers say they continue to face issues such as starting behind the eight ball when returning to work, getting files back and not having the right structures in place to work flexibly and pressure to “demonstrate that you can get large deals done in a reduced amount of time” post maternity leave.

But it is equally important for employers to take action. Indeed, the issue of employers failing to keep in contact with female employees while on maternity leave is ubiquitous. According to a senior female GC, it is a structural issue within organisations that needs to be addressed by its leadership. “HR need to be involved in empowering, setting the culture and being an enabler, but it’s up to the leaders to [endorse] this.”

Nevertheless, the very nature of re-entering the workforce after having children will inevitably present challenges to women. According to one junior female partner at a pre-eminent national law firm, “one of the most difficult things when you return to work is you don’t feel like you can give the full 100%. You can’t be the perfect employee and you can’t be the perfect mother.” Another part-time partner at a global firm reflects that in working part time, “if you are not there when work is given out, you miss out.”

Maternity and top equity partnership – an oxymoron?

A large majority of the executive female lawyers interviewed propose that there is definitely still bias against women stepping into leadership roles and coming up through the ranks (as partners or GCs), with such discrimination more evident than in the early part of their careers. “At the higher echelons, females are rare as hen’s teeth” echoes the sentiments of the interviewees.

Such structural impediments are reinforced by the fact that women are often judged more harshly when it comes to allocating equity points in financially integrated partnerships. This disparity needs to be seriously addressed in order for the legal practice industry to retain its exceptionally talented and valuable female leaders.

While the women interviewed generally shared a belief that “it’s a good time to be a woman in law”, there remains a lot to be done. KWM Global Managing Partner Sue Kench suggests that law firm leaders in particular need to keep working on looking at the “value piece” when it comes to their people, and not just responsible and supervised partner billings. Measuring female and male lawyers equally via the traditional billable hour metric over the course of their careers often puts women at a disadvantage.

Possible solutions to make the legal environment fairer and more equitable could be to ensure that in law firms, women returning from maternity leave have lower billable hour targets for a period of time as they re-establish their practice. Another long-term imperative would be to ensure male partners get support and flexibility to spend more time with their families. On a societal level, building the requirement for males to take family leave into the legislation, as Scandinavian countries have done, would bring long-term benefits to organisations, improving retention, loyalty and satisfaction of employees, as well as decision-making.

Economic, gender and cultural diversity promotes decisions that are better thought-out.

The onus is on senior male lawyers to act as champions of change, which means occasionally putting their hands up to share the unremunerated ‘nurturing’ responsibilities such as networking and mentoring traditionally allocated to female lawyers and partners in law firms. The legal profession needs to do more to ensure that these incredibly talented female law leaders have a better platform from which to soar.

Working towards eliminating short-termism and enacting such policies would ensure a more diverse, effective, and ultimately happier profession.

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