A NATIONAL survey has exposed the high attrition rate of women in the legal profession, presenting a serious challenge for firms in the future.

The Law Council of Australia has released the findings of its National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS) report exposing a startling picture of gender imbalance.

In November 2012, Urbis was engaged to research the reasons for attrition of women from the legal profession in Australia, provide an insight into the experiences of women in the profession and identify ways of redressing the high attrition rate of women.

The research was conducted via surveys and interviews across 4000 Australian legal professionals over a period of 10 months.

The NARS findings show that women in the legal profession were significantly more likely than men to report discriminatory behaviour.

Half of all women reported experiencing discrimination due to their gender, compared with one in 10 men, and approximately one in four had been discriminated against due to family or carer responsibilities.

Appallingly, one in four women had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

But not all of the bullying and discrimination was at the hands of men. A number of participants reported bullying and intimidation were perpetrated by some senior women in the profession.

Exploring why women leave their jobs, and in some cases the profession altogether, was a fundamental question of the study.

Over one in three women were considering moving to a new job within the next five years. Females in private practice were most likely to be considering taking up an in-house role.

The findings show that women and men experience similar ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors when considering leaving their workplaces or the profession.

However, women valued flexible working conditions and career progression more highly than men as motivating factors.

While career progression and work-life balance are important for both men and women, the NARS findings suggest that women lawyers experience career progression differently to their male counterparts.

While mentoring and career development opportunities may be available, these are not generally seen to be adequate or appropriate for women lawyers.

The relative lack of women in senior leadership positions is seen to contribute to a male-dominated culture in which it is difficult for women to progress.

Specialist legal recruiter Alex Correa says it is essential the legal profession addresses rates of female attrition.

“Some employers recognise the potential of their young, female lawyers, but when it comes to lateral hires, if they are nearing child-bearing age I have found some can be hesitant in investing in them," she says.

“My experience has been that the high representation of female graduates means legal firms too invest heavily in building their female talent.  

Despite many outperforming their male counterparts, a significant number of young female lawyers are lost in this mid-career fallout.

“Senior associates working towards partnerships in law firms quickly realise that it is a hard road to balance along with their personal lives.

"They become disengaged and disillusioned before heading off to start families. Many don’t return – simply deeming it to be not worth it.”

She says while some of the responsibility for this must be put on societal pressures, the issue presents a real challenge for the profession.

“Firms risk losing some of their sharpest performers, leaving no real pipeline of females to promote through to partnership,” says Correa.

“Although there are now a growing number of law firms recognising the importance of this issue, many will no doubt agree we still have quite a way to go.

"Organisations taking the steps to be flexible and innovative for employees rule out the need for women to lift the 'hand brake' on their careers and choose roles or companies based on future life pathways.”

The study highlights a number of areas where strategies need to be developed, including how to better promote the drivers of retention and stamp out negative practices within the profession.

The report stresses that firms need to promote flexible work practices and explore alternative billing models in order to foster a more collaborative profession.

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