Outlawed: A graduate journey & call to action
I have spent almost one decade at university. I commenced my undergraduate double degree in 2011. Afterwards, I proceeded to study the Juris Doctor post-bachelor’s with the expectation of graduating in 2020. In the latter half of my tertiary journey, I followed the path of most other aspiring law students, trying to obtain any form of work in the legal industry, unpaid or otherwise.
Since commencing my legal studies in 2015, I have worked in a total of nine organisations that provide legal services. These have included community centres, boutique, national and international commercial firms and the Victorian Bar. I have been luckier than most to gain valuable legal experience and have met many talented and hardworking lawyers and barristers whom it has been a pleasure to work with. Sadly, this is somewhat of a precursor to my damnation of the Victorian legal industry.
Most of my experiences have been far from inspiring. From my experience, which I acknowledge is limited, exposed me to a legal industry which is fraught with toxicity, imbalance and misogyny. I have worked in firms where I have been shouted at point-blank by both senior male and women partners, and in some circumstances have been expressly prohibited from providing clarity when their frustrations stemmed from severe misinformation.
Unbelievably still, some firms referenced me as “the help” and proceeded to exclude me from social functions on this basis. I have been silenced by male partners who took the effort to point out my lay ranking to theirs as ‘king’. I have overheard highly offensive racist and sexist comments from male partners, without feeling I had the voice to call it out. Ashamedly, I admit I felt pressure to partake in these ‘banter’ activities for career advancement, though it internally made me squeamish.
In other circumstances, discrimination based on my gender has been more covert, where male top-heavy organisations signalled that leadership opportunities for women are limited. Though never discussed, one organisation I worked at made it clear women were to be seen and not heard in our day-to-day work, where mine and my female colleagues’ considered contributions fell on deaf ears and had no encouragement.
The leadership team, comprised solely of men, regularly took male colleagues of the same ranking into senior leadership discussions to women’s exclusion. At other firms, I have seen no flexible working arrangements for parents (of any gender) and no HR policy addressing this. Instead, it has been up to the discretion of the Managing Partner, and in one particular firm, they were all men who were known to deny such requests quickly. I have seen multiple firms that do not provide a clean and safe space for women needing to pump breast milk after returning from maternity leave or a designated area for those who observe their faith in business hours.
Interestingly (and somewhat unsurprisingly), I have had senior women tell me directly not to pursue a career with their firm due to the lack of support for women lawyers. These same firms I have seen advertise their ‘gender equality’ and ‘LGBTIQ+’ inclusivity policies, which are far from a bulwark of how these firms operate in reality. These are mere marketing techniques rather than a real commitment and pledge to diversity at work in the law.
Although one might consider my claims to be fanciful, I have sat on multiple equality committees in more than one firm and have been responsible for budget acquisition proposals. When the firm has to open the corporate wallet to fund these purported “important” objectives, often the figures were measly, barely enough to cover hosting one event per annum, around 10 per cent of a single Partner’s monthly wage.
I acknowledge both men and women face challenges in the legal industry. However, it is my personal view that women (and even more so women of colour or those that identify in the LGBTIQ+ community) undeniably continue to face real barriers in the law. Let me back my claims and anecdotes with some statistics. Per the Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner’s records,[i] as at 1 October 2019, women make up the majority of registered practising lawyers at 51%. Women dominate the 20 to 49 age bracket, accounting for 64% of all lawyers in the state. These numbers flip in the 50 to 69 age range, where men make up 66 per cent of Victorian lawyers.
Unsurprisingly, women lawyers report a dwindle in senior leadership roles, with only 10% making CEO or Managing Partner.[ii] At the Victorian Bar, the gap is startling, with women only comprising of 30 per cent of the entire Bar, with 43 women (as compared to 283 men) currently listed on the Victorian Bar website as silk. If we look to the judiciary in the Supreme Court of Victoria, 25 per cent are women. What is abundantly clear is that few women are in leadership in Victorian law. There are a plethora of arguments offering reasons as to why this occurs. But to detail them here would be too cumbersome.
One I will raise, which I find particularly offensive, is that women do not have the desire to reach leadership in the law, for whatever reason. For some women, this may be true, but for many of the women I know from law school or those currently practising, I find this very unlikely – we have ambition and drive but see that the system is not equally balanced to facilitate our success. With these experiences, it has been made clear to me that commercial law opens a very narrow, rather than a wide plethora of opportunity. To find an equitable legal opportunity to achieve considerable remuneration, attractive work conditions, meaningful work and the hope of future career progression seems a farce for most graduate lawyers in Victoria.
Thus, I have decided the law, at least at this stage, it is not for me. Interestingly, I am not the only one amongst my peers who have decided similarly. A handful of my friends, both men and women, are turning to opportunities in investment, accounting and consulting firms, alongside government roles. Some have stayed in the law, but increasingly I see people opt for local firms or community legal centres for the promise of reasonable working hours, getting their hands dirty in exchange for real investment in their potential. For some, this is a great opportunity, and for others, it is an enormous waste of talent in the trade-off for a decent wage and manageable conditions to sustain a lifelong career.
Whereas for the cynics, I like to consider my friends to be intelligent, high performing, forward thinkers with real leadership potential, rather than ‘bottom of the bucket’ graduates (if that even is a ‘thing’). Most achieved within the top five per cent in their year 12. Quite simply, we are tired, resentful, swimming in HECS debt and view corporate law as lacklustre. Although this is but one account of a white, cisgender woman in the Victorian legal industry, it is my experience. Unfortunately, I know many whose experiences within the legal community who have experienced much more severe treatment than myself. Conversely, I know other law graduates who have experienced internships or workloads that brought out the best in their legal skills and provided a broader platform of leadership opportunities.
To me, my challenges have, at times, felt great. But I am well aware of my privileges. I write this for those considering the law and the law firms looking for talent. For those aspiring to study law, I hope this provides a somewhat useful perspective as to potential challenges in modern law. For corporate law firms, this is a call to action: it is time to change. You’re losing talent as graduates and young lawyers look to more progressive, nurturing organisations to launch our careers. We are actively not choosing you and are not desperate to be included in your toxic, overworked and underpaid spinning wheel. We are leaving you behind, are you going to catch up?