A call-out to women lawyers.

Thursday was RUOK day, with the legal press referencing the importance of reaching out to others in the profession to check on their well-being. Yesterday, the NSW Law Society hosted the FLIP conference, with the deleterious effects of the billable hour being one theme repeated throughout the presentations.

And earlier this week, Jordan Furlong, in his post “How Compensation Plans Are Wrecking Law Firms” noted the potential threat to mental well-being of lawyer compensation being tied to hours billed.

But there was a further aspect of Furlong’s post that rang true to me - and that is how compensation tied to the billable hour discriminates against women. My sex are still the primary care-givers, and that means women with children, women with aging parents juggle to balance their carer responsibilities and their billable hour targets. As Furlong points out, this creates an uneven playing field for male and female lawyers, with females having to choose between

  • billing fewer hours, and not just lower compensation but also likely impeded career prospects, or

  • their carer roles being impacted, or

  • any remaining personal (probably sleep time) suffering.

None of these are attractive options, and therefore many female lawyers opt out of the traditional career path. No wonder there is such a high proportion of women in-house. As Furlong points out, one result of the billable hour/compensation model is the “waste of human capital” which results from female lawyers not being rewarded for results obtained.

I’m currently mentoring a young female law student. I am in awe of her drive, intelligence, and enthusiasm. She volunteers at CLCs, has won hackathons, interns at multiple firms, leads student activities and achieves amazing grades. What a waste for not just the profession, but her potential clients if she is forced to choose between children and her career because of the compensation model.

On the other hand, I have heard female law firm partners roll out that old mantra “I did it, so there is no reason someone else can’t”. To those women, ask yourselves what harm you have suffered by having to work the billable hour compensation model - to your personal life, to your health, to your relationships, to your friendships. And how many of those talented women you went through law school with opted out of the partner track because they had to make a choice, and their choice was family rather than career.

Do you want your daughters to have to make that choice? I don’t.

Liz HarrisComment