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COVID-19 paves way for more female-friendly law firms

By Hannah Wootton Financial Review

In the space of a fortnight when COVID-19 hit, women in the legal industry got what many had pushed for over decades: the flexibility to work from home without sabotaging their careers in a field infamous for its focus on “presenteeism”.

Firms and courts that had historically been reticent to allow virtual work had their hands forced as COVID-19 lockdown measures drove office workers home.

Now hopes are rising that flexible work is here to stay, removing one of the main barriers limiting both the advancement and retention of women in the legal industry.

“[The response to COVID-19] shows that a lot of the structural changes that women and people with caring responsibilities have been asking for are possible and productive and viable and efficient,” Women Lawyers NSW president, barrister Larissa Andelman, says.

MinterEllison chief executive and managing partner Annette Kimmitt hopes the adoption of flexible work will be permanent and last month she made all legal roles at her firm “agile”.

“Inside the legal sector, this has been the catalyst for a complete mindset shift. Pure business survival depended on firms to rapidly change how we worked, and what that’s done is really unlock people’s willingness, preparedness and openness to doing things differently,” Kimmitt says.

“I think we’ve done in a couple of months what I thought would take two to three years.”

The legal industry is among the worst in corporate Australia for the progression of women; a majority of law students and junior lawyers are women, yet only 28.8 per cent of partners at Australia’s 50 largest firms are female, according to January’s The Australian Financial Review Law Partnership Survey.

Flexibility is not just for women

Another reason for optimism is that the lockdown might also encourage male lawyers to work flexibly and remotely more permanently.

Almost a quarter of female law firm partners work part-time but men are reluctant to work flexibly or take parental leave because of “cultural and structural barriers” in the profession, the latest round of the Financial Review Law Partnership Survey found.

As Maddocks CEO Michelle Dixon says: “As long as working flexibly is viewed by the business as something that is only for women who have children, then that’s not normalising it.”

Dixon is sanguine that male lawyers have seen the merits of flexible work.

“I think we’ll see a lot more men working flexibly after this and that’s a really important part of the equation in terms of normalising it,” Dixon says.

“It will remove some of those old-fashioned perceptions that flexible workers aren’t as committed, which slows promotions.”

DLA Piper managing partner Amber Matthews says her firm’s management will be working to ensure both men and women engage in flexible work arrangements.

“What I’m going to be pushing more within DLA Piper is that we continue encouraging our men to work flexibly, because until that happens, we are not going to get that systemic change,” she says.

“This has provided much more potential change than we could’ve hoped for but a lot of its success will be incumbent on us businesses to keep pushing it. If I see all men back at their desks and only women working flexibly, then we’d have to intervene and ask what’s going on there.”

One of the challenges for legal firms will be to ensure that remote work policies are uniformly accepted, despite individual partner preferences, Immediation founder and barrister Laura Keily argues.

“One of the difficult things about flexible working [in law firms] is that it comes down to what an individual partner wants. Firms are not autocracies. Some partners will want to do things their own way,” she cautions.

Access to courts

At the same time as law firms sent staff home, the courts moved to virtual hearings, which Wright says presents a “significant opportunity for all members of the profession”.

The necessity of physically attending court and mediations has historically restricted access to high-quality litigation work for lawyers who were limited by caring responsibilities.

While Australian courts are yet to finalise their post-COVID-19 plans for hearings, Andelman was optimistic that “some will definitely keep virtual aspects” when matters allowed.

More female leaders

The pandemic may also prompt greater appetite for female leaders of law firms as the success of countries run by women in containing COVID-19 demonstrated how typically female traits can be beneficial when it comes to managing a crisis, Dixon says.

“You think about what leadership has traditionally looked like and how people viewed leadership, and it’s been about command and control,” Dixon says.

“But now we’re seeing an appreciation for something different, which is the collaborative, people-focused approach for a lot of female leaders,” Referring to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, Dixon says: “Those leaders have different approaches, but there’s some common themes around collaboration and focusing on people and communication.”

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