Career Intentions Pave the Way for Career and Diversity Initiatives

The Women Lawyers’ Association of NSW (WLANSW) Career Intentions Survey is the first study in Australia with the capacity to measure and address the effectiveness of initiatives targeting diversity, retention of talent, and leadership in the legal profession. 1 403 law graduates from all university law schools and the College of Law in NSW participated in the survey. 61% proposed to practise as a lawyer, 28% were not sure whether to practise as a lawyer and 11% did not intend to practise as a lawyer.

Females were significantly more likely than males to study law because they had an interest in social justice (49% female, 35% male), studied legal studies at school and enjoyed it (31% female, 20% male) and participated in debating/mock trials at school and enjoyed it (21% female, 14% male). Males were significantly more likely than females to study law due to a good income that a career in the law offers (36% male, 31 % female), having an interest in government and/or politics (37% male, 30% female), prestige and status that a career in the law would entail (37% male, 26% female), and having the right aptitude/skills for a law degree (33% male, 27% female).

Of respondents who do not intend on practising at the Bar, the most common reasons for females not to work at the Bar were ‘too much stress/pressure’ (38%) and ‘not having the required skills’ (37%). Respondents were asked to rank the reasons they indicated for choosing not to practise as a barrister as ‘extremely important’, ‘very important’ and ‘fairly important’. The top 10 out of 23 ‘extremely important’ reasons for not intending to work as a barrister were: (1) I don’t have the required skills/my personality is not suited; (2) I don’t enjoy public speaking/court appearances; (3) I don’t have enough information to make a decision regarding the Bar; (4) The Bar is not family-friendly; (5) High risk working for yourself/challenge to find steady work; (6) I would like to practice outside metropolitan areas; (7) Too much stress/pressure; (8) I want to travel/work overseas (need the flexibility of a solicitor); (9) There appears to be a lack of ethnic representation at the Bar; and (10) The hours are too long.

When considered in the context of the current employment market for law graduates, the Career Intentions Survey Report points to a real need for initiatives, policies, practices and programs to be reviewed starting from when students are studying law at university.

Historically there has been significant debate about the anticipated ‘trickle up’ impact of increasing numbers of female law graduates especially as numbers of female law graduates have equalled and surpassed those of male law graduates. This phenomenon has been occurring for now over three decades with recognisable barriers continuing to be faced by women in the legal profession. An evidence base to guide and direct professional associations, employers, and those responsible for the education and professional development of lawyers about what more can be done is much needed to ensure constructive and meaningful change happens in the most efficient way possible.

The Career Intentions Survey Report will be launched at a cocktail function at 6-8pm on Thursday 30 July 2015 at the Union University and Schools Club. The speakers at the launch will be the Honourable Acting Justice Jane Mathews AO Patron of WLANSW, Jane Needham SC President of the Bar Association of NSW, and Doug Humphreys Treasurer of the Law Society of NSW. For further details and to register for this event, please see here.

The Report makes 15 recommendations:

  1.That longitudinal research continue relating to the career intentions and career paths of law graduates, and the factors influencing these.
  2.That initiatives and programs targeting diversity be responsive to the intersection of gender, ethnicity, age of lawyers, and regional versus metropolitan work environments.
  3. That future research explore whether respondents identify themselves or not as indigenous.
  4.That those responsible for the education and professional development of law graduates be supported in providing law students with information about practising as a legal practitioner.
  5.That those responsible for the education and professional development of law graduates be supported in informing law students about employment and work experience opportunities for law students.
  6.That initiatives providing law related employment and work experience opportunities for law students be reviewed and developed.
  7.That initiatives providing mentoring and networking opportunities for law students be reviewed and developed, with a focus on ensuring Combined LLB students especially have access to senior lawyers.Note: WLANSW for example provides opportunities for student membership, informal networking and mentoring opportunities for law students at WLANSW events, and holds a Law as A Career: Coming to the Bar seminar every year during Law Week featuring a speakers panel which generally includes a solicitor, barrister and Judge.
  8.That professional legal associations provide opportunities for student membership and mentoring and networking opportunities for law students.
  9.That individual lawyers be encouraged to participate in professional legal associations providing mentoring, education and support on workplace issues.
  10.That professional legal associations and individual lawyers engage in and be supported to engage in mentoring, education and support of law students, law graduates and younger lawyers.
  11.That professional legal associations including specialist legal associations such as women lawyers associations, associations for younger lawyers, law alumni associations, and associations based on specialist practice areas and other specialist groups and interests, on renewal of memberships track and monitor the intention of their members to change their specialist field(s) of law or workplace and the reasons behind this.Note: Such reasons can be measured against some of the concerns identified by respondents to this and other studies including remuneration, too long work hours, family responsibilities, stress and pressure, and unemployment/loss of employment.
  12.That initiatives and programs of professional legal associations including specialist legal associations be planned and targeted around data on the intention of members to change specialist field of law or workplace and the reasons behind this.
  13.That professional associations and those responsible for the education and professional development of law graduates, undertake initiatives addressing:a)      The skills and personality types suited to a career at the Bar.

b)      The working environment at the Bar, including the availability of flexible working practices, what is involved in developing and maintaining a practice at the Bar, business practices and business models for sustaining a practice at the Bar, management of stress, pressure and mental health issues when practising at the Bar, the availability of regional work for the Bar, and the relevance of working in a team environment to practise at the Bar.

c)       Diversity including in the areas of gender, ethnicity and age, at the Bar.

  14.That wellbeing and mental health initiatives take into account the origins of stress and pressure on lawyers from the time they are at law school and the developments of sources of stress and pressure on lawyers throughout the duration of their careers.
  15.That consideration be given to forming partnerships with other organisations including potentially at a national level to support future research on career intentions on an ongoing basis.

WLANSW thanks Platinum Sponsors the Law Society of New South Wales and the Bar Association of NSW, Major Sponsor Herbert Smith Freehills, and Sponsor the College of Law for their support with the development of the Career Intentions Survey Project.

The Report for the Career Intentions Survey which took place from Semester 1 2013 to Semester 1 2015 will be available on the WLA website.

For further information and enquiries, please contact Kathryn McKenzie, Executive Officer, at executive@womenlawyersnsw.org.au or on 0466 157 087.