First published in The Australian on 18 January 2013.

By: Ainslie Van Onselen

THE number of lawyers who have formal working-from-home arrangements at the top 13 law firms in Australia rose by a staggering 65 per cent in just over a year, according to The Australian’s Annual Workplace Flexibility Survey.

However, while the percentage growth was significant, the total number remains low. Out of a pool of 7434 lawyers in the top 13 firms, only 109 work from home, up from 66 a year earlier.

Of the 13 firms surveyed, all but one, Gadens, experienced a rise. Herbert Smith Freehills ranked first on the list with 15 lawyers who now have formalised arrangements in place, compared with 10 last year.

Equal second are Norton Rose and Allens Linklaters, with 14 lawyers apiece, the latter seeing a stark jump from five to 14 in the space of one year.

Despite the significant growth in formal arrangements, most firms stressed that formal working-from-home arrangements represented only the tip of the iceberg in respect to workplace flexibility, as most firms permitted lawyers to work from home on an informal basis.

Herbert Smith Freehills spokeswoman Megan Williams says “flexible working arrangements, including working from home, are open to all lawyers and business services staff. Much of this, by nature, is flexible, changing from time to time, making it hard to report on figures. However, we have 596 lawyers using Citrix, an online VPN (virtual private network) portal enabling ease in working from home”.

Flexible working arrangements, such as permitting online access to a firm’s intranet, also ensures the firm gets its pound of flesh from its employees: allowing them to work from home after hours and on weekends.

The proportion of fee-earners working part-time (including partners) also steadily increased in the last year, albeit modestly, from 9.4 per cent to 10.8 per cent. This represents the highest proportion of part-timers in the legal workforce in six years. In 2009, when law firms were battling the fallout of the GFC and many firms encouraged lawyers to work reduced hours, the figure was 10 per cent.

Last year law firms were faced with reduced activity in the Australian business community, particularly the mining sector, with many infrastructure projects being put on hold. This may explain the figures. Alternatively, it could be a sign that law firms are seeing the benefit in offering increased part-time flexibility.

With 14.7 per cent of its fee-earners working part-time, Maddocks ranked No 1 on the list, compared to a ranking of 10th last year (8.4 per cent). Only three of the 13 firms surveyed (Minter Ellison, Clayton Utz and Norton Rose) saw a decreasing percentage of part-time fee-earners.

Corrs Chambers Westgarth has 10.6 per cent of its fee-earners working part-time and ranks equal sixth on the list. It boasts that, through its Corrs [email protected] program, “nearly three-quarters of Corrs staff utilise some form of flexible work practices, for example, working part-time, telecommuting, job sharing, increased leave entitlements etc”.

Of those fee-earners that do work part-time, 16.1 per cent are male, meaning that the vast bulk of part-time lawyers are still female.

Interestingly, just over one in five part-time lawyers at DLA Piper, Allens and Norton Rose are male, representing a large jump for all three firms, particularly DLA Piper, where 27.3 per cent of their part-timers are male compared to 19.4 per cent last year.

A more telling indication in the male part-time figures is that the 16.1 per cent figure for last year, like the proportion of fee-earners working part-time, again brought the top 13 firms on par with the 2009 figures when the percentage was 16 per cent. In the intervening period, the percentage of male part-timers was 14.2 per cent in 2010 and 12.6 per cent in 2011.

There are several possible reasons for the increase in males working part-time. Slower economic activity is one. An ageing male workforce getting nearer to retirement age and wanting to slow down is perhaps another.

Of the firms surveyed, the proportion of female senior associates who are working part-time remains high but stable at 30.5 per cent.

This result accords with the previous five years (28.6 per cent in 2011; 31.2 per cent in 2010; 31.5 per cent in 2009 and 27.7 per cent in 2008).

While many women will find it encouraging that such a high percentage of female senior associates are permitted to work part-time, the far smaller number of partners who do so suggests that for these women, their careers may have plateaued.

The proportion of partners working part-time increased from 7.7 per cent in 2011 to 8.1 per cent last year. While this figure remains low it is the highest it has been in five years. In 2008 the proportion was 5.1 per cent.

Clayton Utz ranked 12th on the list and the proportion of its part-time partners decreased from 6.1 per cent to 5.1 per cent over the past year. However, for the first time in its history, on New Year’s Day it promoted a female part-time senior associate (Perth-based construction and major projects lawyer Adrienne Parker) to the ranks of partnership (where she will continue to work part-time) in Western Australia.

Norton Rose ranked 11th on the list, with 5 per cent of its partners working part-time. However, it says 42 per cent of its female partners adopt some form of flexible work practice.

Herbert Smith Freehills has a large proportion of its Special Counsel working part-time at 42.9 per cent, well up from 29.5 per cent in 2010. However, the proportion across the board was 30.2 per cent, the lowest it has been in five years.

Ainslie van Onselen is an associate professor at the University of Western Australia, a lawyer and company director.