Flexible and part-time work in the legal profession

UC School of Law and the Canterbury Women’s Legal Association have published an important study of flexible and part-time work in the Canterbury legal profession.

Ursula Cheer

The project team invited all qualified lawyers and legal executives practising in the Canterbury and Westland area to take part in a survey examining flexible and part-time working arrangements.

Findings from the study include:

  • women who undertake paid legal employment still continue to do most of the unpaid care as part of raising children;
  • most employees do not base their request for a flexible work arrangement on relevant legislative provisions;
  • part-time working arrangements are more likely to be seen as having a negative impact on career progression than flexible work practices;
  • formal work policies on flexible and part-time work rarely exist; and
  • men are less likely to use flexible and part-time work arrangements.

The Dean of UC School of Law, Professor Ursula Cheer, who was a member of the project team, said that while it could be seen as reassuring that attitudes and approaches to these work practices in the Canterbury legal profession reflect national and international themes and trends generally, unfortunately many are negative in nature and this is normalised within the profession and wider society.

“One notable aspect of our study is that of all the responses we received, over 90% were from female lawyers or legal executives. The gender split in the responses in this project was very pronounced, suggesting a lack of engagement by male lawyers in this issue. This could flow from an assumption that flexible and part-time work practices are a child-care and therefore a women’s issue,” Professor Cheer commented. “Lack of interest in the issue makes it very difficult to get any traction for change in a profession that is still dominated at the top by males and based on a male model of work, but where women dominate the lower strata.”

Professor Cheer also noted that a common theme in the responses was the need for consistency between the terms of workplace policies on flexible and part-time work (where they exist) and actual workplace practices.

“And when part-time legal employees were asked what more their employers could do to support part-time work, they generally focused on wanting a more supportive workplace. Specific suggestions offered were the provision of adequate working space, appropriate and consistent support from other staff and the setting of realistic workloads,” she said.

The report makes a series of recommendations and suggestions for change. These include:

  • promotion of realistic flexible and part-time work practices as normal;
  • development of model templates for employment policies and contracts; and
  • national law awards to reward and publicise positive work practices.

More radical suggestions include:

  • moving away from a billable hours business model, perhaps to fixed fee billing;
  • limiting working hours to improve the wellbeing of all employees; and
  • legal practices promoting real work-life balance by encouraging and assisting women and men to take time off for care-related needs.

As well as Professor Cheer, the project team included Associate Professor Annick Masselot, Associate Professor Lynne Taylor, Ms Natalie Baird and Dr Rhonda Powell.

The full report is available at http://www.laws.canterbury.ac.nz/documents/Report_Flexible_and_Part-time_Work_Arrangements_in_the_Canterbury_Legal_Profession.pdf

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