The issue of retention of women in senior roles in the law is a hot topic. A qualitative research project has been undertaken by the AWLA and a strong stance has been taken by Chris Moore, president of the New Zealand Law Soceity, declaring the progression of women in the law to be the Society’s theme for 2014.
An entire section of the NZLS website is now dedicated to informing the profession about the issues facing women in the law and the impact on the entire profession and concerns about the progression of women into senior roles generally is now translating into action. Groups such as Professionalle and the Corporate Mothers Network and initiatives such as the YMCA equal pay campaign have shown that this issue is gaining momentum and that the value in having women at the top of organisations is not just an issue about equality, but a decision around profitability.
A core issue is around how to retain women who have ambition, talent and drive, but who have young families and are no longer able to work full-time. I believe the answer lies in the part-time flexible hour workplace. In practical terms however, what impact does this have from an employee’s and an employer’s perspective?
I have, until recently, worked as a senior lawyer and as an associate within a large Auckland law firm. I was there for 12 years and worked part-time for the last five years, under the supervision of a part-time partner, Sue Gray. I have had three periods of maternity leave ranging from nine-18 months in length. I have since moved to a new employer, also in a part-time senior role. As an employee returning to the law in a part-time role, I see the following personal benefits:
- Keeping my legal career: Had I been unable to work part-time while my children were young I would have left the law, at least for the foreseeable future. Allowing part-time employees means mothers can keep their careers on track, even if they are not progressing, while they have young families. This helps retain legal skills, knowledge, relationships and mojo.
- Being valued for my (legal) worth: Law is vocational for many employees. When on maternity leave, I missed my time in Court as an advocate, drafting submissions and the challenge of legal research. I define myself, at least in part, by the work I do. Part-time hours allow people who want to spend more time with their children to do so without having to give up their career.
- Benefits to my family: Not only do I bring in an income, I also can do a job I love. I am a role model for my children and provide a financial contribution to my family. I am a better mother because I am a happy one.
- Being part of an office: Part-time employeers have a strong appreciation of the team environment. The dicotomy of work and home life give me perspective that means I truly appreciate a great workplace.
- Legal networking and the profession: At a senior level particularly, lawyers have friends and colleagues who are senior members of the bar, partners in law firms, hold high roles in government and who are Judges. In staying at work, those connections can be maintained and grown, which is of value not only to the employee, but the employer also.
- Ambition: I remain ambitious. I want to progress my career and will continue to exceed my employer’s expectations with that in mind. Part-timers may say ‘yes’ to policy reviews, undertaking staff training, attending networking events, writing articles and mentoring as they know they need to go the extra mile to be visible. I will shortly take on the role of a team leader (working three days a week) and I am confident that I will be able to undertake that role as well as maintain a 0.6 client workload. Technology means I am at least as “available” on my days off for clients as when I am in Court.
Emma Priest is a senior lawyer at the Public Defence Service in Manukau, Auckland.