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Photo by Pavel Danilyuk

Experts rally for change in legal industry’s ‘billable system’ 

A report from UC Hastings College of the Law stated that  "a most-hours-wins system disproportionately disadvantages women partners.”

Female lawyers with family responsibilities—those taking care of their kids or having just given birth—find it difficult to earn the same professional service fees as men, creating a gap between genders in the field with twice as many women as men saying they are not able to progress their careers. This is why experts are calling for a change in the legal industry’s traditional billable system where lawyers are paid by the amount of time they spend on various tasks, including research, document drafting, client meetings, and court appearances.

This concern was also echoed by Rutgers Center for Women and Work in a 2022 report, saying that “the current culture around compensation places too heavy weight on billable hours and origination credit in determining pay, and this culture needs to change.”

A report from UC Hastings College of the Law also stated that " a most-hours-wins system disproportionately disadvantages women partners.”

"Many more men than women have two person careers in which they can rely on their partner to take care of all matters outside of work," the paper stated.

A joint report by Mayer Brown and Women In Law Hong Kong (WILHK) suggested a billable system of including work on DEI be recognised and rewarded to incentivise DEI involvement. In the same report, it was found that four in 10 (38.2%) female lawyers have felt left out of career-building opportunities because of their gender or care responsibilities.

Nisha Chugh, head of Legal, Compliance & Company Secretarial at ConnectedGroup, said firms are looking beyond deliverables.

“They are also looking at what other contributions women are making, rather than just focusing on billables,” Chugh said.

Change of mindset

Apart from a change in the billable system, a change of mindset is also needed to address gender disparity across industries, including the legal field.

“When someone who has a young kid or has a child, we tend to think that they would need more time off or they would need to be home more or take a step back in their career,” Hays expert, Adrian Lam, said.

“[But] having a child doesn’t [always] mean that [they] want to be more relaxed, it may just mean that [they] perhaps need to work a different set of hours. [They] might perhaps need to have that little bit more flexibility,” Lam added.

This is why Johnny Hui, manager for legal at Robert Walters Hong Kong, encourages firms to offer family-friendly flexible work arrangements, such as part-time, telecommuting, or even job-sharing options, to accommodate the needs of female lawyers who may have family or caregiving responsibilities.

Hui said firms can also offer flexible parental leave policies to allow women to take time off for childbirth and child-rearing without facing adverse consequences in their careers.

Doing more

Offering flexibility as well as changing the billable system are just few of the things that firms can do to ensure gender equality in the legal industry.

In Mayer Brown, new mothers who have come back to work are offered back-from-maternity-leave coaching.

“[We] coach them with a professional to help facilitate the transition and address issues such as work-life balance, boundary setting, and stress management,” Amita Haylock, co-chair of Mayer Brown’s Women’s Network in Asia, shared.

Haylock said the firm is also planning to provide training on confronting gender microaggressions, or the subtle or indirect comments or actions that can be interpreted as discriminatory or derogatory. These can be intentional or unintentional, and they can have a negative impact on the recipient's well-being and sense of belonging in the workplace.

According to the joint report, 23.0% of women with senior roles in the legal industry had clients directing questions or queries to a more junior male colleague instead of them.

“We will talk about privileges and biases that are often the core of microaggressive behaviours, ways to interrupt microaggressions, and preventive measures to limit microaggressions and create a more inclusive work culture,” Haylock said.

Ultimately, Chugh said there needs to be awareness and education amongst employees as to what counts as microaggression.

“With respect to microaggression, even if you have workplace policies against that, how do you enforce it? Because people may not even recognize that they're doing something wrong, or that they may be hurting someone or making someone feel intimidated,” Chugh said.

“What is really important is educating and creating awareness within employees that [a certain] action is labelled as microaggression. This action is what makes this sort of person feel this way and this action is not okay.  There has to be education and awareness, before you implement the policy because policies don't mean anything if people don’t understand them or are not accustomed to using them,” she added.

Hui had a similar sentiment, adding that “creating a safe space for women to share their experiences, and training men in the workplace to become better allies is crucial.”

Holding senior leaders accountable

Helen Wang, co-chair of Mayer Brown’s Women’s Network in Asia, emphasised that said firms must also hold senior leaders accountable for addressing microaggressions in the workplace.

“Organisations need to start from the top in order to move the needle in a workplace setting. Without senior leadership of law firms, chambers and companies giving DEI its due importance, microaggression will not stop,” Wang said.

“A culture of zero tolerance towards gender inequality, and opportunity to raise concerns anonymously, if required, will promote accountability for behaviour,” Wang added.

Leaders should likewise have a key performance indicator (KPI) on workplace experience.

“These can be both individual and collective. Measure it by 360-degree feedback and internal colleague engagement survey,” said Wang.

Another way to create accountability is to have leaders report their progress towards achieving gender diversity targets.

Lastly, Wang said leaders need to disrupt and challenge their fellow leaders respectfully on gender bias issues. 

“This could happen, for instance, during the hiring and promotional decisions. Are there opportunities whereby leaders can intervene if they sense biases in these decisions? This also links to systemic changes whereby leaders need to be behind these changes and agree with them,” Wang said.

Celebrating women

Whilst there are many policies which can help female employees have better experiences, Wang believes that the way to encourage them to stay or be part of an industry is to celebrate their achievements.

“We need an increased representation of women in senior leadership positions and celebrate their achievements so that women have equal opportunities in career advancement and young female talents could see themselves as having a prospect in the legal industry,” Wang said.

Chugh had a similar sentiment, saying that the legal industry can do more in advocating for female lawyers to join the workforce.

“There are a lot of women in senior management positions in Asia and Hong Kong today.  We have got Constance Choy of Sidley Austin, Connie Heng at Clifford Chance, May Tai at Herbert Smith, Teresa Ko of Freshfields, Vicki Liu at Allen & Overy and Benita Yu at Slaughter and May.  In the past we have had Nathalie Hobbs at Linklaters.  Pretty much all the magic circle firms,” Chugh said.

“It's very inspiring and motivating for younger women entering the legal industry to see that a seat on the senior management table is a goal that is achievable in Asia and Hong Kong, and one should have no hesitation aspiring to it,” she added.

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