By -

Senior Lawyers: Here to stay
What keeps people in this demanding profession at the senior level? How have they managed to sustain that early dream of making a difference, attaining a prestigious position, and managing the work–life balance?

Enduring enthusiasm for the law characterises Fiona Crosbie, Chair of Allens, one of the largest international commercial law firms in the Asia-Pacific region. She is also a senior partner, practising in competition, consumer and regulatory law. Among her many achievements, in 2021 Crosbie became a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Law, and in 2022 a member of the Financial Regulator Assessment Authority. 

Crosbie has been in the law all her working life. She entered law school “because I liked writing, argumentation, analysis, and wanted to have an impact.”

And, she says, “working in the profession has exceeded my expectations, by an order of magnitude.

“I was always interested in policy and the big issues in the economy and society. I work on regulatory matters, where you have to dive into an industry and talk with people across economic sectors, including experts, and understand the regulator. The work is so stimulating. It’s fantastically interesting. I love it.”

Ngaire Watson, a barrister based in Murwillumbah on the NSW Far North Coast, is also enthused about the law after two decades in the profession.

Unlike Crosbie, Watson had no expectation of becoming a lawyer in her early career. She initially trained and worked as a nurse and psychoanalyst.

In her early forties, Watson switched professions, qualifying as a lawyer. “I didn’t have a particular vision about where the law would take me. The move wasn’t career driven or financially motivated. I came to the law predominantly with curiosity. And it continues to feed that.”

But, Watson says, finding a graduate position was hard: “Firms appeared to be looking for a certain kind of person to mould. So I took the Bar exam. I like learning, and didn’t find it arduous. And working as a barrister specialising in health and medical litigation turned out to be a natural fit for me.

“I’m really enjoying the work. Law is a great profession if you’re interested in thinking. It educates you in the way of thinking about problems, viewing the world, understanding how society works. If you’re interested in those questions, as I am, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy law on a long-term basis.”

image description
"I came to the law predominantly with curiosity. And it continues to feed that." Ngaire Watson

Perseverance and perfectionism

But what about those who don’t stay in the law long term because of issues impacting their wellbeing? Andrew Wong is well positioned to advise on this. He did a double degree in psychology and law and worked first as a lawyer, and then  from 2019 to 2022 as Senior Manager (Forensic Services) at Veretis Legal Psychology before recently starting his own forensic psychology practice, Andrew Wong Psychology. Wong observes that it’s not surprising mental health issues are experienced by people working at all levels of the profession and in all types of practices. “The law is a very detail-oriented job, and admin heavy. It requires the cognitive and personality traits of someone with very good concentration, grit and perseverance.”

In addition to this, lawyers tend to have “the personality traits of perfectionism and over-conscientiousness”, Wong says. This can lead to their feeling very anxious about their work, “even obsessive”.

The Law Society’s Solicitor Outreach Service reports that, since its inception in 2020, anxiety is the major mental health issue for which solicitors have sought support. And, Wong says, where anxiety and perfectionism are not managed, burnout can result. He outlines the warning signs.

“The first stage of burnout is the honeymoon phase: high job satisfaction, commitment, energy, creativity, and you feel you’re doing well, being challenged by your responsibilities.

“Stage two is the onset of stress. Your optimism starts to wane and you begin noticing symptoms like higher blood pressure, the inability to focus, irritability, poor sleep.

“Stage three is chronic stress. You stop doing things you normally do, like engaging in your hobbies; you start missing work deadlines, feel persistently tired, procrastinate, and start taking sick days.

image description
“Maintaining good mental health in your job should be all about balance. Ensure you have a good supervisor. And maintain connections with friends and family, so you’re not isolated.” Andrew Wong

“The fourth stage is burnout. You feel empty, pessimistic, start obsessing over problems. It’s often too late to do anything but leave the job.”

Self-awareness is crucial for dealing with this and other mental health issues arising from your work, Wong advises. “Everyone responds to stress very differently,“ he says. “You need to have a basic understanding of how stress affects you and what your triggers are. If you’ve had past personal traumas you may be at greater risk of burnout, or of vicarious trauma.

“That’s secondary trauma, where you display clinical or subclinical symptoms of PTSD that mirror the experiences of traumatised clients. You could start experiencing the same sort of anxiety, intrusive memories, flashbacks, nightmares. You may also feel sadness, grief, emptiness, anger, irritability, anxiety, hypervigilance, and sometimes even survivor guilt.”

Wong advises, “Maintaining good mental health in your job should be all about balance. To reduce stress, you need to consciously make time for more activities that are pleasurable and relaxing. Ensure you have a good supervisor. And maintain connections with friends and family, so you’re not isolated.”

Collaboration is alive and well

Relationships are key to a sustainable career in the law, Watson says.

She tells the Journal, “As a barrister you work to quite a high extent as an individual, and I also live alone and work from home in a regional area. But moving from the city worked for me because it’s a more sustainable way of living, and I’m still able to engage with others.

“I can work with solicitors in various locations. And I can support them. Working in medical negligence, there are many emotionally challenging cases of human suffering. I can assist my solicitor colleagues, if they haven’t had the training I’ve had, to manage it.”

She also maintains close ties with lawyers at senior levels. “With the Bar,” Watson says, “there’s this unspoken rule that you’ll help each other. If I have a difficult question I just pick up the phone and ask. I’ve never been rebuffed. And I do the same for others. Collaboration is definitely alive and well between lawyers.”

For Watson, volunteering is an additional way “to keep in contact with others.” As a long-term volunteer with the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA), she is a driving force in its policy and advocacy work, and advises on medical law education sessions and the ALA’s bimonthly journal. “This also satisfies my strong ethical need to work in an area that’s consistent with social justice,” Watson says.

Crosbie observes that if those in leadership positions are to build and maintain a good relationship with younger staff, dialogue is crucial. “We’ve found young lawyers make assumptions that the people they consider successful within the organisation have different personal stories from their own – different backgrounds, education and values. While we’ve always had a diverse group of people here, today we consciously spend time talking about our own journeys and the journeys of those close to us.”

Gender disparity in senior legal roles

Women continue to be underrepresented in senior roles within the legal profession, despite outnumbering men. Some statistics at December 2022:

  • For the fifth consecutive year, female solicitors outnumber male solicitors (in NSW, the split is 54 per cent female and 46 per cent male) 
  • The proportion of women in partnership positions is 32.1 per cent
  • The appointment of women to the partnerships of Australia’s 50 biggest law firms is at its lowest rate in three years
  • Only 40.9 per cent of the 352 lawyers offered promotion positions for 2023 were women – down from 47 per cent the previous year
  • Only 16 per cent (eight) of the top 50 firms have female leaders in the managing partner or chief executive role

Many law firms have adopted targets for partner appointments, with a common target being 40 per cent men, 40 per cent women and 20 per cent women, men or non-binary.

“I’ve come to realise the impact of senior leaders supporting our people in new and different ways,” she adds. “I think a big part of leadership is listening to your people. And young people are very curious and purpose-driven. They need you to make the case for your own law firm, for the profession.

“And they look for role models; that means being ever mindful that what you do and say has an impact. When they see that you love the work and really enjoy brainstorming with them, and you expect them to think deeply and creatively about things, that’s infectious and generates great energy.”

image description
“I think a big part of leadership is listening to your people. And young people are very curious and purpose-driven. They need you to make the case for your own law firm, for the profession." Fiona Crosbie

Crosbie’s combination of warmth and success are a positive force for women contemplating staying in the law at senior level. And although there is still gender disparity in senior positions, she notes that Allens, like many other firms, has increased senior female representation. At the end of 2022, 36.4 per cent of Allens partners were female, and other firms are seeing similar growth. Allens has a new target of at least 40 per cent female partners in 2025, under its 40:40:20 aim: 40 per cent women, 40 per cent men and 20 per cent any gender.

“I wouldn’t have expected those targets to be so effective, but then we lawyers are competitive people, and don’t like to miss targets,” Crosbie says.

“Stay open to remaining in the profession long term. It can take you to all sorts of places. Don’t be deterred if your career path doesn’t appear to be straightforward. There will be setbacks, so prepare to bounce back, be resilient.

“At a senior level, you’re equipped to let your perfectionism go, and start embracing materiality. If something goes wrong, you’re able to reframe the pain, and perceive the apparent catastrophe as a challenge to turn on its head.”

She adds, “Stay agile, and you can find yourself in interesting places. That’s one of many great things about the law: you have a baseline of competence and knowledge, and your personal skill set, and this steers you to an area that becomes your niche.”

Watson affirms this. “There are ways of being a lawyer other than the traditional way. I’ve been able to carve out my own niche. With an unusual set of qualifications, I’ve been able to work successfully. It just requires tenacity, a bit of creativity, and backing yourself.”