There’s no way I’m going to be at a large private law firm and try to be a mum. Won’t happen.
When I moved the admission of some of our GDLP graduates recently, the presiding judge noted that females constituted nearly 60% of the admittees at that day’s ceremonies. This confirms recent statistics that a majority of lawyers in Australia are female. However, in the course of my ongoing commercial research project I learned that as we progress to the 30s/early 40s age bracket, the majority of practising lawyers are male, and from that point on, the number of female lawyers continually (and dramatically) decline. Call it the late 30s career cliff if you may, and no doubt there are many factors behind this, which could be personal, professional, financial, cultural, leading to a significant under-representation of female lawyers 40+ years and beyond.
Of course, some of us may know a male lawyer who gave up his career to be a stay-at-home dad (I’m sure a whole universe of them exist like in House Husbands), and some of us know female lawyers who successfully raise a family whilst forging a successful career. Some of us know lawyers who pursue their chosen fields without having children. No doubt we know of firms that comprise a large number of female lawyers.
However my research highlighted a significant divide between the attitudes of male and female law students and early career commercial lawyers towards work life balance. In one focus group, comprising wholly of female law students, one dominant theme was their impression that trying to have children whilst working in a top tier firm was not an ideal situation. One student said that if she was interviewed for a clerkship, she would say “I’m single” lest the firm gets the impression she will take time off to raise a family, thus diminishing (in her opinion) their investment in her as a lawyer. In another focus group comprising wholly of female early career commercial lawyers I asked what advice they would proffer to a female law student wanting to pursue a commercial law career. “Don’t have children” remarked one rather sardonically.
That’s not to say the male law students in my research gave low priority to work life balance and having kids. However, they exhibited a different approach, seeing themselves as the primary bread winner, and ensuring they didn’t get home too late to spend time with their family. That’s admirable, but not one male law student or lawyer in my research said they would give up their job to be a stay-at-home dad. In contrast, several of the female participants indicated they were willing to make career changes to focus on raising children, with one declaring “There’s no way I’m going to be at a large private law firm and try to be a mum. Won’t happen.” Perhaps there’s an underlying expectation held by some about gender roles, although I’m not suggesting that fathers love having children any less than mothers do.
One female in a GDLP focus group, who was already working in a global firm, lamented that female lawyers are treated differently to male lawyers. There’s an expectation that if a child is sick, the mum will leave the office to pick them up from school. If a female lawyer has children she’s less likely to do the late hours expected by some firms, the implication being that it will affect her career path.
I’m sure many commercial law firms genuinely support work life balance. I recall seeing one job advertisement saying 'Commercial lawyer wanted' with the tagline 'Excellent work life balance'. However just like contracts, it really comes down to the fine print and which interpretation prevails.