Gender Inequality and Attrition in the Legal Profession

Friday 11 April 2014 @ 2.35 p.m. | Judiciary, Legal Profession & Procedure

With the release of the National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS) on 14 March 2014, Michael Kirby has stated that while highlighting gender inequality in the profession might “drive some senior members crazy”, the issue is too important to drop.

Background to the Study

The 150-page NARS report includes damning statistics on the rate of discrimination, bullying and harassment in the legal profession and has been described as "a “watershed moment” for the legal profession" by Fiona McLeod SC, a key figure in the national development of the study.

The report by the Law Council of Australia went on to describe the profession as a profession that still caters to men with female attrition only one sign of this issue. 

Results of the NARS Study

Half of all women surveyed (over 3801 practising lawyers, 84 lawyers who had left the profession and 75 individuals who have completed a law qualification but have not practised law) claimed to have experienced discrimination due to their gender, compared to just over 10 per cent of men. One in four women said they were discriminated against due to family or carer responsibilities.

Overt examples of gender discrimination ranged from being allocated different types of work, to being rejected or judged as less competent by clients and colleagues. Subtler forms of discrimination were also reported, including demeaning and condescending language by clients and colleagues and exclusion from conversation or social activities.

Discrimination was not limited to male offenders, with a number of women identified as the perpetrators.

The study also found an equally staggering number of women (50%) and one in three men said they had been bullied or intimidated in the workplace. These figures could be linked to the confrontational nature of legal practice.

The report also singled out the billable hour as being a key driver of dissatisfaction among women, however, it did not recommend that time billing be ditched altogether. In Fiona McLeod's view, "billable units are simply a measure of performance that can negatively impact lawyers by rewarding time spent on completing tasks rather than rewarding outcomes."


Included among dozens of recommendations to help reduce the rate of attrition were the promotion of flexible work practices and exploration of alternative billing models.

Also included in the recommendations by the report were:

  • Visible commitment by senior management to gender diversity;
  • Tackling mindsets and encouraging cultural change; and
  • Targeted initiatives at particular challenges faced by each company

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