Part-Time Partners and Associates – It Can Work

One of my closest friends is a senior litigation partner at one of the largest law firms in Australia. She has always worked part-time through an arrangement with her firm where she works more than full-time during hectic trial periods and then will take a few weeks or a month off during the various school holidays. I have always admired her tenacity in making this work despite some pushback from her partners when she first started this arrangement eighteen years ago.

Recently, she remarked to me that flexible work arrangements were now common at the large national and international firms in Sydney. I was very surprised as such arrangements are still uncommon in Canada. In fact many, if not most partners here believe that law (and especially litigation) is not at all suited to part-time work arrangements.

In a survey published in the Australian national newspaper The Australian on November 4, 2011, thirteen of the largest firms reported that 9.4% of their lawyers work some form of flexible work arrangements – either reduced hours or working from home on a regular basis. While this number is still small, the trend over the past five years shows a steady increase. Norton Rose (Australia) now has 40% of its female partners on some form of flexible work arrangement. Norton Rose has also been pursuing a strategy to increase their number of female partners. In 2005 only 9% of their partners were female. They set a target of 20% by 2011 and exceeded it by reaching 22% last year. They have now set a higher target.

The statistics out of Australia amongst senior female associates working part-time are even more remarkable. The firms average 28.6% (down from 31.5% in 2009) though Minter Ellison tops the list at 54.6% of their female senior associates working part-time. As these senior associates become partners, it is certain that they will not be giving up their part-time arrangements as a condition of becoming a partner. It is anticipated that the number of part-time partners will grow rapidly over the next few years.

So why has Australia – a country which some Canadians smugly think is more chauvinistic than here – moved so far ahead of us in adopting more flexible work arrangements? The answer is competition for the best and brightest law graduates. Law school graduating classes in Australia have been 70% female for the past many years. In Canada, our law school graduates are fairly evenly balanced between men and women with women sometimes graduating in slightly higher numbers.

The higher female graduates in Australia is a result of law being a first degree where you enter right out of high school. As anyone who has ever attended a high school graduation ceremony in Canada knows, it is overwhelming girls walking across the stage to pick up most of the academic prizes and scholarships. Fortunately, for Canadian boys, they have four years at university to improve their grades and enter law school now only slightly behind in numbers to the girls.

This dramatic “feminization” of the legal graduates in Australia has forced the firms to look for ways to attract and retain the best and the brightest grads who are now primarily female. Not surprisingly, more and more male lawyers want similar work arrangements as their female colleagues. While the great majority of part-time lawyers at the largest firms are female (87.4%) more male lawyers are also moving to part-time. Norton Rose has 15% of their male lawyers working part-time while Allens Arthur Robinson tops the list with 20% of their of their male lawyers choosing part-time work.

This is a trend that is not going away. With both parents in the workforce and working at equally demanding jobs such as law, medicine or accounting, more Canadian lawyers both male and female are looking for ways to manage their family responsibilities. The days of the at-home wife supporting the busy law firm partner are quickly fading if they haven’t already disappeared. The Australian study shows that it is not just lawyers with children who are looking for reduced hours or reduced stress from commuting. All lawyers are seeking ways to manage the stress of higher billing targets, higher housing costs, increased global competition, faster turn-around times and clients demanding lower fees.

Flexible work arrangements whether it is part-time work or simply less face-time in the office to reduce weekly commutes, is fast becoming the single most important recruitment and retention tool for law firms. If our Australian colleagues can make it work both financially and for their clients, then Canadian law firms can do the same. There’s a lot we can learn by looking Down Under.

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