Home > Academia, Australia, Books, Life, Social Commentary > Unequal Partners? Women in the legal profession.

Unequal Partners? Women in the legal profession.

People ask me why I left the legal profession. Depending on how much time they have, one response is that the hours weren’t compatible with life, let alone a family life. I’d worked in the very smallest of law firms, to the very largest (and even tried the Public Service) and uniformly found, that commitment to the legal life was an all-or-nothing proposition. What’s more, there were grinding inequalities which came with the territory, but which we dared not speak of.

My generation of women–those who graduated during Keating’s “recession we had to have” of the early 1990s, were just so happy to have a job. Yes, we graduated with those purple and green stickers that declared “Women can do anything”, but to us, it seemed a silly statement of the obvious. Of course, we were only in that fortunate frame of mind because of the work of generations of women before us, who’d made equality an expectation, not an aspiration. However, the expectation was not only to be allowed into the profession (that happened well over 100 years ago, in Australia), but extended to equality of participation, including progress on merit. Management theories for years supposed that having increasing numbers of women in the profession would iron out any inequalities and change the profession. However, what would seem to be the case, is that women have taken on and adapted to the environment, rather than changed it. The end result is that lots of women go into the profession, and are churned back out, with broken hearts and ambitions unfulfilled.

This is not at all about man-bashing. I’m rather fond of men. I could do a Tony Abbott speech and say I even married one, and have several other men in my family. But on a serious note, there is a very specific and ingrained culture in the legal profession, that still treats women as second-best, and pays accordingly.

Some things which women lawyers have indicated to me over the years, in confidence, include, for example:
* In the 1990s, if a woman wore trousers instead of a skirt to court, a male judge might say “I cannot see you.” I made this mistake once, because as a (then) construction lawyer, who could be called out for site inspections, trouser suits seemed sensible.
* In the 1990s, if a woman wrote down “Ms” instead of “Miss” or “Mrs” on the appearance slip in court, a male judge might say, “I cannot hear you.” I made this mistake once, also.
* Blokes get to walk in front and not carry a thing. Women walk three steps behind, carrying the folders or pushing the trolleys to court. This is not just a seniority thing. A woman lawyer could do all the work on the file, but then when a corporate representative of the client was due to come to court to watch the progress of the matter, the woman would be told not to speak with the client, not to take any credit for work done, and to walk three steps behind all the men. The women doing all the work on the matter could also be overlooked for the celebrations afterward, so that the bloke who was being groomed for promotion, could step in and take all credit.
* Blokes in charge of junior female lawyers have been known to cross off time from their underling’s timesheets and transfer it to their own, to make budget and get that next promotion. Women couldn’t do much about it, for fear of being branded troublesome and losing their jobs. Where the pressure to make billable hours is so great, there are sometimes bad eggs to be found.
* There were so many female graduates in my time and subsequently, that we were seen as easily replaceable. (Too many new law schools opened up after I graduated, creating a glut). We were routinely told that we were less valuable than the secretaries, and that if we upset the secretaries for any reason, we’d be fired. Apparently, some secretaries had a devilishly good time with this.
* Women were mostly called upon to do the unbillable work in the firm, while blokes got the plum files.
* Part-time work after children was a no-go zone, even in some parts of the Public Service: “In or Out” was the mantra.

Dr Geraldine Neal has produced an exceptional and brave thesis about the state of gender equality in the Queensland legal profession. She graduated with a PhD in Law from Griffith University, last week–a big congratulations to her. Take a look:

Unequal Partners? Women in the legal profession thesis.

Graduate Careers Australia (GCA), has recently published research indicating that in 2009, the average entry level salary for male law graduates was A$53,000 whereas the female equivalent was A$48,600: an 8% difference. But why, for graduates with equal inexperience?

Across the board, female grads under 25 were paid 3% less than male, but the disparity was 8% for lawyers. Oddly, the situation seems to be worsening recently – in 2008, the gap for young lawyers was only 2%. The statistics include people who are not working in law firms, but remain in the legal industry, so it’s not just big, bad law firms: the industry itself is inequitable. (GCA material was sourced, with thanks, from RollOnFriday.)

This weekend (starting Friday), the Third Annual Australian Women Lawyers conference is on in Brisbane, with a fabulous line-up of speakers. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend it, as I’ll be out on the Australian ski fields, however, I do wish all participants well, and hope that gentle and deliberate progress is made … in the name of genuine equity.

1. The examples cited above are generic and do not relate to any specific instances, firms or judges. Practices which were common and accepted in the past are not necessarily so common or accepted now, but some of the underlying issues linger.
2. I remain passionate and positive about the law, equality and justice, even though I choose not to practice as a solicitor. I have no regrets about my experiences, no axe to grind and no David Jones-type claim to make. I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve had and I’m proud of the achievements of all women. They all have the potential to make the world a better place for the next generation, including my own daughters (who show great aptitude for heated debate, at the tender ages of 6 and 9. I fear they may become litigators).
3. I have a PhD in Philosophy, undergoing examination. Wish me well.
4. My novel, about gutsy women lawyers, no less, is being lovingly (with loving, comes loathing) edited for a big publishing house. I wish it would edit itself. The publisher thinks the original working title of “Six Minutes” (in honour of the terrible timesheet) sounds too thriller-ish. I’m open to comments from the floor – should I change it to “Law Life”, “Every Six Minutes” or keep “Six Minutes” because it’s enough to make any lawyer’s blood flow backwards (for enough time to pick up the book and check out its contents…)? Wish me luck. It’s about time the Brisbane legal scene was written about.

  1. Melissa
    August 5, 2010 at 11:16 pm

    Oh dear. All that you have written was and in some cases is still true. I am not a lawyer though I have worked in one of the “big” firms as well as the public service. In the very expendable marketing depts though. I ways always saddened to see the bright faced article clerks start one year and slowly see the numbers dwindle throughout the year as the life ahead of them became apparent. So many tomes I had to prod a few awake after seeing them asleep at their desks because of over work. I also came across some “lovely” partners who thought it would be okay to tell oops yell at me that “I pay your wage out of my pocket and I’m not getting vaule for my money from you” this was after me working my weekend, missing a friends wedding, all for the sake of his newsletter to make it to the printers. Doesn’t matter that his copy was late to me to begin with. Oh it is an interesting profession. It’s getting better, but I had to nod my head when you mentioned no pant suits in court, that still happens! Madness.

    • August 6, 2010 at 8:44 am

      Thanks for that perspective, Melissa. I didn’t know that the marketing departments had it so badly – sad to hear that – I guess we were too glued to our desks (working or sleeping, as you say) to notice anyone else’s pain. I’ll tweak the novel to get that new insight in there somewhere.

  2. Jacqueline
    August 5, 2010 at 11:57 pm

    I vote for “Six Minutes”…it’s a title that would catch my eye to read the blurb at the back.

    • August 6, 2010 at 8:47 am

      Thanks Jacqueline! I hope a few more people vote on the title, otherwise I fear I may be rolled on it 😉

  3. Melissa
    August 7, 2010 at 9:00 am

    All that you write is unfortunately all too true. I was a lawyer in top firms for five years before I got out (& I thank my lucky stars that I did because when you’re actually in that environment it’s hard to get the perspective to see it for what it really is. When the partner puts someone down, because they’re in a position of authority and experience, sometimes it’s hard to see at the time that it’s a means of control rather than a true judgment on the quality of the work). I can think of several occasions where the woman got pushed around and into unbillable work. When one firm wanted to manage out a person who had had glandular fever & could no longer work the insane hours they required, they put her on precedents for three months (supposedly to help her by removing pressure) but then had grounds to criticise her at year’s end for failure to meet billing targets! She eventually became so unhappy she left … but without complaining because the legal profession is so small that most of us believe that if you are known to have complained, you’ll quietly find it difficult to get another job. I definitely saw plum work going to the partner’s favourites (who were all male). There were quite a few women too, but we were not given the best work. Several people described the partner I worked for as a bully. I myself was managed out in circumstances where I found another job and so quit, giving my old firm six weeks’ notice instead of the regulation four, because we were in the middle of something and it seemed like the right thing to do. The firm then turned around and said, no, we won’t accept that finish date, you won’t be productive in your last few weeks and so we’d like you to finish up at the end of the week (and by the way we won’t pay you your notice period either). Truly appalling and totally against the law. As I hadn’t budgeted for not being paid for six weeks, I was forced to complain but the (female) partner was adamant – I would not be paid. HR spouted what the partners wanted them to say rather than taking the reasonable view. I eventually had to threaten to go public and report them, before they agreed to pay money to which I was legally entitled. I was very junior, it wasn’t a lot of money (especially not to wealthy partners) but they just didn’t see the need to waste money paying junior women if they can be suppressed and bullied into submission.
    I’ve worked for three top tier law firms for several years (7.5 years in total) and from personal experience can say that, in general, I have found female partners in law firms to be harder to work for than male partners. Most of the very few women who have managed to climb that far in such a male-dominated environment seem to be more aggressive, more cutthroat, and more bullying in nature, than the men. Perhaps that was the only way they could reach partnership? (I can think of one exception – a female partner who was superb to work for. But they are few & far between).

    • August 23, 2010 at 10:35 am

      Melissa, thanks so much for sharing your story. It’s very unfortunate, but if it makes you feel any better, you’re absolutely not alone. Firm cultures are set from the top-down and assuming that HR is hired to enforce that status quo, it’s pretty hard to do anything about it other than vote with your feet. Or spend a big part of your life writing a PhD thesis about it!

      Until there’s an economic imperative to change, it’s filed in Abeyance, aka Too Hard Basket. I’m glad to hear that you’ve been able to find a place that appreciates your contribution to the profession.

  4. Melissa
    August 7, 2010 at 9:03 am

    And as for the title – I like Six Minutes. Or ‘Every six minutes’ which might sound more ‘treadmill-like’?

  5. Catherine
    August 9, 2010 at 11:05 pm

    I came to the law profession a little bit later than others – my early 30s, starting in 2002. It seems (hopefully) that the ‘archaic’ ways of the 90s may have dwindled away. I have always written ‘Ms’ on the appearance slip but have never been confronted by a “I cannot hear you” retort. I’m a bit partial to a trouser suit and have worn them on many occasions to Court – no problems there either. I’ve even gone so far as to wear a sleeveless maternity top (with no jacket) before the Chief Judge at the Banco Court when I was 8 months pregnant, & not so much a batting of an eyelid (but it was, mind you, only a call-over).

    I completed my articles at a mid-tier firm. Of the five partners, one was female (married, with no children) – she had more balls than the four males put together, but she tried to be a ‘real’ mentor. I worked under 2 male partners, one of whom was a horrible, little bully. One of the articled clerks who went through with me worked directly under him. She would be in the office from 6.00am in the morning to at least 6.00pm in the evening, if not longer. Meanwhile, the partner would waltz in at 9am, go for lunch virtually every day for at least 2–3 hours, & then be out the door between 4.00 – 5.00pm. He would throw files at secretaries, abuse staff, put you on the outer if you didn’t kow-tow to him or even go so far as to give you the silent treatment for days on end. I came to the conclusion that he was a very insecure man. Meanwhile, the articled clerk would be fighting off cold sores from the stress she was under – she had to be the most haggard and drawn looking 24 year old I’ve ever seen. & of course if a matter turned out favourably for our client, I think you know who took all the credit & went out to lunch with them.

    I now work part-time in another mid-tier firm. Of the five partners, one is female – & she is single and childless. All of the professional females work part-time with days varying from 2 to 4 per week. My hours are reasonable – I have to say I’m pretty close to achieving the whole work/life balance thing. When I take a day off if one of my children is sick, I am never made to feel guilty. I work under a male partner. He is, to say the least, very sexist. One minute I’m being told that my contract won’t be varied so I can work less days, and then within the next breath I’m being told that I should be at home with my children. I have a tendency to utter a few profanities – however if I do so within his hearing I’m chastised for being unlady-like – but he thinks it’s okay for him to drop the ‘f’ and ‘c’ bombs every day in front of female staff nonetheless. He has leeringly commented to me “My, you have big breasts” and then very nearly whacked me on the so mentioned breasts with some rolled up Court documents (but luckily thought better of it). I was that gob-smacked I was lost for words.

    These are but a few incidents, but if I was to document all my negative experiences, you’d have enough material for your sequel!

    To be honest, I’m not entirely happy with my work place but it suits my needs (albeit the sexist remarks) at the moment.

    I vote “Six Minutes”.

    • August 23, 2010 at 10:58 am

      Catherine, thank you for your comment. I’m glad that some things have improved, as you’ve noted, and I’m thrilled for you that you’ve found a firm which allows you to balance work and family. Things have definitely improved in some areas (in some workplaces more than others), which is encouraging. I don’t know what to say about the “big breasts” comment – just dreadful. One academic told me that it’s helpful to be holding a big pair of scissors (opening & closing them, menacingly) when approached by a bloke like that – tends to redirect the blood back up to the brain). [Thanks Tess].

      Women have admitted all sorts of things to me about their experiences (usually after a drink or two). The stress of being in a bad situation can lead to bulimia, anxiety, depression … These aren’t short-term problems. Of course, there are plenty of relationship breakdowns, because of the pressure. You can’t have a great relationship with someone you rarely see.

      I’m pleased that you found a great female mentor – that is so important. No doubt, you’re now a great mentor for others, too.

      Thanks for voting on the title!

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