Home News
Breaking the glass ceiling: women in law

"There is demand for lawyers who can work across both law and a specialised discipline."

The fact that women earn less than men despite having equivalent qualifications and experience is no doubt a problem in contemporary Australia. And the legal profession is no exception.

But, as we progress through the 21st century, women’s ability to multitask will hold them in good stead for careers as lawyers, a Deakin University professor says.

Deakin Law School Director of Research, Professor Samantha Hepburn, sees great future demand for lawyers who can work across both law and a specialised discipline.

Food resources and climate change are two of the disciplines she cites as having strong growth potential for multi-disciplined lawyers.

‘In the future, it might be that we need a multi-disciplined approach to law,’ she says.

Many women today are experts in juggling children and careers so it’s not surprising women are generally adept at multitasking.

Professor Hepburn herself recalls an important meeting in Canada with the Dean of the University of British Columbia, and her daughter, then 2, wet her pants halfway through the meeting.

Nevertheless, juggling motherhood with her career did not stop her from finishing her doctorate and climbing to the top of law academia.

‘Half of success is just about turning up and being resilient,’ she says.

Professor Hepburn says it is often difficult to replicate male colleague’s careers when women tend to be the ones who take on the responsibilities of raising a family.

‘Men tend to end up ahead of the race,’ she says.

The gender pay gap

Despite 69 per cent of the legal profession being female, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency reported a 35.6 per cent gender pay gap in late 2014, for full-time legal service employees. And getting women lawyers into the boardrooms of private practice remains behind the times.

When Professor Hepburn undertook her articles at a big law firm in the city during the 1990s, all the partners were men.

‘But there were some inspirational women there,’ she says.

Having young children was ‘one of the reasons’ that attracted her to academia and out of corporate law practice.

‘It was just so rigid in practice,’ she says, an experience shared by many female lawyers.

She is thankful to see more women as partners and in managerial positions today, as well as the developments in flexible work hours. But the pay gap remains problematic.

The ‘boys club’ culture still exists, but is gradually changing.

‘Workplaces are changing,’ she says. ‘Women are far more frequently getting promoted in private practice and the changing work environment for women is enabling this.’

Law firms now recognise the advantages of retaining good female lawyers, and that flexible work hours need not be a barrier to success, she says.

Tips for young female lawyers

Her tips to women starting out in the profession: be resilient and determined, and seek a mentor.

‘Take the approach that it’s water off a duck’s back when things don’t go right, and assess what went wrong,’ Professor Hepburn says.

‘And believe in yourself,’ she says.

Posted in News