Work/life balance carries career consequences

by 01 Apr 2010

A survey from the United Kingdom this week has raised some serious questions about whether or not pursuing flexible working arrangements in law can ultimately hinder career prospects.

The Australian Women Lawyers (AWL) association has urged partners to lead by example on work/life balance, following the study which found female lawyers believe pursuing flexible work arrangements can damage their careers.

The survey, conducted by King's College London and The Association of Women Solicitors (AWS), and based on the attitudes of 800 female solicitors, found that there is a perception among some female solicitors that law firms will talk about work/life policies, but are not really committed to their implementation.

The survey found one third of female lawyers were dissatisfied with their opportunities to work flexibly. One in two female lawyers said they believe lawyers who make use of such policies are viewed as less serious about their careers and 44 per cent felt that working flexibly has a negative impact on a lawyer's promotion prospects.

While plenty of law firms might have work/life policies in place, vice president of AWL, Kerry Clark, noted that having such policies is only the first step. "The next steps are crucial if the profession wants to be successful in retaining talented women solicitors.

"They are ensuring that good administrative and managerial support structures are in place to make flexible arrangements work for the individual solicitor, clients and the firm, and reassuring solicitors that making use of flexible work policies will not be detrimental to promotion prospects and access to top-end work within the firm," Clark said.

Clark suggested that partners lead by example. "If associates and senior associates see successful part-time and telecommuting partners in their firm, they will aspire to that example rather than leaving the profession in droves."

Janet Walks, Professor of Human Resource Management and Employment Relations at King's College, conducted the survey noting that career development and work-life balance of women solicitors are issues of major concern for the future of the legal profession.

"If law firms wish to avoid higher levels of burnout and dissatisfaction they need to look carefully at the issue of women's career progression," said Walks.

Commenting on these findings, chairwoman of AWS, Dr Clare McConnell, recognised there is still some way to go. "Firms need to develop their business structures and adopt clear career paths and promotion opportunities that are genuinely open to all," McConnell said. "Flexible working for any solicitor should not be seen as a barrier to career progression."

- Briana Everett

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