Lawyers of the world unite – trade unions and the legal profession

by Phoebe Churches


Lawyers and Unions+

When I say ‘lawyers and trade unions’ in the same breath, you might immediately think of one of the big labour law firms. You know, the firms which have historically backed the union movement and focused on employment law – for other workers. Indeed that is an interesting history…but perhaps for another time. This time I want to talk about lawyers and trade union representation.

There is a great deal of commentary on the eternal work-life balance battle in the legal profession. Is it particularly bad for lawyers or are we lagging behind in this area?

It would be overstating it to say that the battle has been won in other fields, however the trade union movement has been collectivising and fighting on a number of fronts in the battle for work-life balance since early last century. Trade unions were originally started by workers to collectivise and create a stronger voice in the workplace to improve a range of conditions, not just for themselves, but also for other non-unionised workers.

When you think of our current struggle for work-life balance in the legal profession, you might also consider how life was for all workers before the 8-hour day, holiday and sick pay, superannuation, workers’ compensation and equal pay for equal work. Yes, that was your friendly trade union achieving all that.

So where is the lawyer’s union? There is a Finance Sector Union, a union for any number of other professionals – including engineers, pharmacists, airline pilots and scientists.

A bit of research uncovers that there once was a specialist union for lawyers employed in the public service at least – the Australian Government Lawyers Association which existed from 1974 – 1991, to eventually be subsumed by the CPSU, the Community & Public Sector Union. Now there is nothing.

So why is there no union for legal professionals in Australia? The Law Institute of Victoria and similar associations across the country fulfil some functions of a union – they have information on work-life balance on their website, which is great… but that’s it. If you work in the Community Legal Sector, you have the Federations of CLCs to provide collectivised advocacy and support for vital issues in the sector such as funding and promotion of the CLC model. There is no specific focus on the conditions of its workers, however.

There is also no body to campaign for private employers to improve their conditions and implement good work-life balance policies. There is no representation in enterprise bargaining to improve conditions and entitlements throughout the workplace. Yes, many legal professionals are self-employed, but so very many also work in large firms. So who is looking out for the vulnerable in these firms: those with family responsibilities, people with health problems and other issues which put them at a relative disadvantage?

Currently – that’s all up to the individual. At least at the moment. Unfortunately historically –  without collectivising – changes to these fundamental conditions in the workplace have not come easily (or at all).

In the UK this seems to be changing. There is a fledgling group setting up a Legal Workers’ Trade Union. They aim to ‘forge a unified profession and establish better working environments’ and ‘fight for fairness and equality across the industry’.

If that sounds like a good idea to you – maybe it’s time we collectivised and set one up here in Australia?

You have nothing to lose but your chains billable hours.



+A tip o’ the pen to Mr Dean R P Edwards for suggesting this topic