By Sonia Hickey
Despite the fact that women have been working successfully as lawyers since Flos Grieg was admitted as a barrister in Victoria in 1905, the profession has long been seen as gender-biased. Failing to address the issue means that talented people leave, or end up underutilized. The solution it seems, for many, is to join small firms, or start micro-businesses.
Last year when Australia celebrated a professional milestone which recognized the broad anniversary of the introduction of the legislation across all states that allowed women into the legal profession, journalists and bloggers spent quite some time dissecting what – if anything – had changed for women during the course of a century.
Of course, a lot has changed. Recent statistics show that majority of newly admitted lawyers in NSW are women, making up 63% of all law graduates.
There are a few sticking points though.
Issues facing female lawyers
Firstly, that many firms continue to be male dominated, with partnership hierarchies that resemble a typical ‘boys’ club’ exclusive of women.
There are also startling recently published statistics that show sexual harassment is particularly high in the legal profession, with one in four female lawyers alleging sexual harassment in the workplace.
And lastly, women find it harder to reach the top. This is reflected in the lesser numbers of female barristers, ‘Silks’ and magistrates. Long hours, a highly responsible, demanding role, and a professional culture that’s generally unsupportive of ‘work life’ balance (whether you are male or female) sees many women drop out of their careers around the time they start a family, simply because they can see, from the experience of those who have gone before them, that actually pursuing a high-powered legal career and combining it with the commitment that comes with raising children, is not necessarily an easily sustainable choice.
The profession is working to change both the perception and the reality.
These are very real problems for women and the profession is at risk of losing some great talent if these issues are not adequately addressed. Change is happening, but only incrementally. There are industry-wide initiatives to amend the gender pay gap, many firms are undertaking strategic initiatives to actively promote more women into senior roles, and breaking down traditional law firm organisational structures which have.
Women are gravitating towards small and micro-businesses
But female lawyers are also taking matters into their own hands. And many are joining smaller firms, where there is a greater chance of promotion into a senior leadership role.
By and large, smaller firms are also nimbler and more adaptable and are happy to embrace concepts like ‘agile working’ and ‘freelance lawyering’ which are popular options for women wishing to return to work in some capacity after having children.
Many women are also starting their own small law firms. And this makes a lot of sense.
Having your own small business allows you to ‘pick and choose’ clients, maintain flexibility, engage and contribute to the justice system in a meaningful way, but on your own terms.
But the key, say those lawyers who’ve done it, is to specialize. To choose one specific area of law and find your market niche.
Law firm start-ups
That said, starting out on your own is not for the faint-hearted either. It is relatively cheap to set yourself up with a laptop and a mobile phone, and technology can be a very valuable resource – take advantage of virtual offices with conference and boardroom facilities, as well as Skype/VOIP communication facilities to keep your costs down. Similarly, find free file-sharing websites like Dropbox, but be also be aware of cyber-security.
Make sure you have a budget for marketing – a good website and a comprehensive digital marketing strategy can help you to grow both your brand and your client base.
Don’t isolate yourself. As proficient as you may be, sometimes it really helps to confidentially share a client’s particular thorny issues with another professional with the appropriate skill set in order to explore all options. Networking is also a great way to stay abreast of industry-wide initiatives, and pick up the odd new client too.
But also remember that when you’re a solopreneur all of the business responsibilities fall to you. Especially in the lean, early months, when sometimes the cash flow offers you only enough for ‘survival’ and there are no funds to hire extra hands. Consider doing a short business course to learn the basics. Make sure that you have a good accountant.
If you can successfully navigate your way through the start-up phase, by starting small and, aiming for steady, sustainable business growth, having your own firm can be not just a rewarding career choice, but a rewarding life choice too, allowing you the freedom to design your life around work, and vice versa.
Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist and owner of ‘Woman with Words’. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team.