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The Other Side of COVID-19 for Women in Law

To say 2020 hasn’t turned out the way we expected would be an understatement. COVID-19 has completely flipped all our lives upside down, killing nearly half a million people and forcing billions of others into lockdown. Here at QUT Women in Law, we were disappointed to postpone many of our Semester 1 events, including our flagship QUT Law Alumni Panel and our much-anticipated end of semester picnic.

While much of the focus has understandably been on the widespread devastation the pandemic has caused, COVID-19 may also mark a long-awaited shift towards agile working among lawyers. This could be crucial to remedying gender inequality within the legal industry.

The Pitcher Partners’ 2019 Legal Firm Survey found that 64 per cent of graduates in law firms across Australia are female. However, women make up just 16 per cent of equity partners. And the Law Council of Australia’s National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS) Report may shed some light as to why.

Almost two-thirds of female lawyers (compared to just 42% of men) had made at least one request for flexible working arrangements. The most frequent request was to work remotely. However, women were twice as likely as men to report these arrangements negatively affected their career progression and/or the type of work they were given. They were also more likely to refrain from making such a request because they believed it was unlikely to be approved, or because it would have negative consequences for their status, reputation or career opportunities.

But when the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic this March, the legal industry (like the rest of the business world) was forced to re-evaluate its attitude towards remote working. Many of Brisbane’s preeminent law firms, including King & Wood Mallesons, Allens, Clayton Utz and Herbert Smith Freehills, strongly encouraged or (in some cases) outright required their employees to work from home to help stop the spread of the virus.

This undoubtedly presented a range of initial challenges for lawyers and employers alike, with workers scrambling to deck-out their new at-home desks and offices, and many firms rushing to implement more suitable remote working policies and arrangements. But, four months later, this unexpected experiment seems to have proven that working from home (at least part of the time) really can work.

As a result, not only do more lawyers intend to request to continue working remotely at least part of the time once lockdown measures are lifted, but firms seem more receptive these requests. For example, Herbert Smith Freehills executive partner Andrew Pike told Lawyers Weekly in May that the pandemic has prompted the firm to rethink the way it works:

“Over the past few weeks, I’ve been proud to see our people adopt a positive, flexible and self-solve mindset. This has enabled them to work effectively from home and successfully connect with clients and colleagues while delivering excellent results. I trust our people and teams to make the right decisions for themselves and the firm, and we will support them to work from home.”

The normalisation of flexible working arrangements may help to empower women to juggle their personal and professional responsibilities more effectively. This has the potential to increase the disproportionately small percentage of female law graduates who progress to senior positions within the industry, particularly after having children.

So, for all the devastation it has caused, coronavirus may also have unintentionally sparked an exciting new era in the legal industry. Perhaps this should inspire hope among female law students at QUT and beyond that they will be entering a profession which will be more responsive to the needs of modern working women.

By Morgan Lynch

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