Just 90 years after winning the right to practice law, woman currently make up 68% of all law graduates, which is a remarkable achievement. However, females account for only 16% of partners, and less than 3% of managing partners and/or CEO’s which raises questions of gender equality at the senior management level within Australian law firms.
According to sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, the system of billable hours employed by the majority of law firms in private practice could amount to sexual discrimination if it acts as an impediment to women seeking partnership.
Indeed, one of the traditional selection criteria for achieving partnership in most law firms is a calculation of the amount of ‘billable hours’ each partnership candidate has charged out.
“The question [of sexual discrimination] would depend on the circumstances in any given case. The issue the court would be concerned with is: Is the system employed by the firm (in this case, billable hours) reasonable under the circumstances?” she said.
Senior partnership recruitment consultant Marianna Tuccia of Naiman Clarke is of the view that many women seeking partnership have long been disadvantaged by the system of billable hours.
“One of the criteria for partnership is how much you bill. If you are working part-time you are not going to bill as much, and this has worked to the detriment of women seeking partnership.” she said.
In 1998 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission found that requiring partners or aspiring partners to work fulltime would inevitably disadvantage women. Therefore to regard this as a ‘reasonable requirement’ would perpetuate and institutionalise indirect discrimination against female practitioners. (Hickie v Hunt & Hunt)
In spite of this, many within the sector are not prepared to blame the system of billable hours for the low proportion of women being appointed to partnership level in Australia. According to Hays senior recruitment consultant Andrew Rees:
“While billable hours form a component of the criteria for appointment as a partner, other criteria are considered.”
He goes further to dismiss the low proportion of females in partnership roles a result of ‘tradition’ rather than discrimination on the grounds of sex.
“Traditionally there were a larger percentage of male partners in law firms. As a result, whilst there remains a disproportionate number of female partners, the number of female partner appointment have increased in recent history. Law firms have acknowledged the disparity, and have acted and continue to act, to alleviate the gap. He said.
One thing remains certain. That is, the path for women seeking partnership is clearly littered with obstacles which are simply not confronted by their male counterparts. Some are attitudinal whilst others systemic. Hence, it appears that choosing the right firm, with a supportive and flexible culture is the first step towards women achieving partnership and beyond. Equally importantly is the development of technical skills, hard work, and passion for the law. Finally, it would take a brave soul indeed to resist the collective rethink of the system of billable hours currently being advocated by Commissioner Broderick.