Pressing for progress: Making law a family friendly profession

Sally Macindoe

Traditionally, the law industry has been notorious for its unfamily-friendly workplace practices, which have particularly penalised mothers in need of flexibility  from reaching their full career potential. But times are changing, the ‘old’ model of practising law is being disrupted (and not just by technology).

The ‘exclusivity’ status quo is being challenged and a new ‘inclusive’ culture is being championed by some progressive firms determined to help shape a brave new world within their industry – a world where practising law and parenthood at the same time (and being supported to do so) is the new ‘norm’. This simple shift in culture, policy and attitude is helping elevate women into leadership roles and contributing to tackling gender inequality.

I recently interviewed Sally Macindoe, Partner and Global Head of Diversity for international firm Norton Rose Fulbright about her own personal experience and what the firm is doing to help their people manage career and caring responsibilities so they can thrive in all areas of life. Sally suggests there is an opportunity to “look at the innovative ways that structurally change the way we practice law that will create a more inclusive environment which provides options for people that need to work in different ways.”

Sally made Partner as a young, single mum in the 90’s – she was one of only 6% of women at the time to do so, and it was the understanding, flexibility and belief of the firm’s then Managing Partner that opened the door and made it possible according to Sally – 

‘You’re the right person for the job Sally, it’s possible you can work whatever way you want, we’ll support you.’ He was true to that. ‘It actually helped me to come back to work and put some structure around me’.

Sally worked part time and against the gender equality odds, in 2005, was invited as the first women to stand for the board, which she joined and subsequently chaired in 2009.

Sally explains that the starting point for legal firms and other organisations considering ways to attract and retain talent, is to understand why family-friendly policies matter. Many organisations think supporting those with caring responsibilities is “a social policy issue” only, and they fail to make the connection to “why it matters to business performance. Sally believes that the economic business case for action is often not fully understood.

Norton Rose Fulbright knows there is an “economic [and social responsibility] need to retain, provide and promote” talent to achieve its and gender equality targets.

“We need to make sure we create a working environment where that talent can thrive. It’s not just for women, it’s for men, it’s for parents, it’s for people with carer responsibilities.” Sally Macindoe

Flexibility and agile working remain key factors. In law firms, “historically the senior levels have been dominated by men who are working under a high-stress environment; just trying to get through their day. When they go to delegate something and you’re not there they throw their hands up in the air and say, ‘well this [flexibility] doesn’t work’.”

However, Sally believes it’s time for firms to be much more organised and forward-thinking than that.

To facilitate a real culture change, it’s also time for the leaders of organisations to start demonstrating flexibility, which will also help to mainstream flexibility for men.

There’s no one-size-fits-all for flexible working, however, Norton Rose Fulbright think about flexibility as a three-way street. It’s incredibly important that it works for both the individual, the business and the team around the individual. It’s about cultural change which “requires passion, patience and leadership” .

Norton Rose Fulbright now has many successful programs which helps retain women and men through the parenting stage of their lives, which includes a Return to Work program through Parents At Work, assisting parents in their transition back to work after parental leave.

Belinda Harvey is a lawyer and new Partner at Norton Rose Fulbright who returned to work after 12 months parental leave. “Thankfully, the firm has a fabulous diversity and inclusion policy and a flexible work policy. That set the foundation for me to be able to have the right conversations about how I wanted to return to work”. As a solo parent, Belinda believes without this support, her advancement to Partner may not have been possible.

When Sally joined the board, the representation of women at senior levels of the firm was around 9%.  Today, it’s 30%, with a target of 35% by 2020.

LISTEN or READ the full interview with Sally Macindoe.

To LISTEN to or READ Belinda Harvey’s inspiring story about overcoming the motherhood penalty here.

For more information about how your organisation can implement a tailored Parenting Program please contact me on info@parentsatwork.com.au.

By Emma Walsh, CEO, Parents At Work