When the first female Chief Justice in the history of Australia’s highest court was sworn in earlier this year, there was celebration amongst the female legal profession. There was also disappointment. Disappointment that it had taken so long for a woman to hold the position of Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia.
The lack of women in senior positions in the law resulted in a survey by the Law Council of Australia on why women leave law firms which led to the National Report on Attrition and Re-engagement. This year, the International Bar Association built on the survey seeking to find out why women leave the legal profession.
The chair of the International Bar Association’s Women Lawyers’ Interest Group said: “Women leaving law firms to the degree at which they are presently doing is very worrying. This specific issue lies within the broader serious problem of a major lack of diversity in the legal profession, particularly within senior roles.”
Professor George Williams AO and Daniel Reynolds performed a study of barristers advocating in the High Court. They found that in the financial year 2015-2016, not a single female barrister appeared for any party. In their article in the Australian Law Journal, the authors said that “significantly, six of the top ten most frequently appearing female barristers before the High Court over this period did not speak on any occasion before the Court.”
This is not because there is a lack of women in the legal profession. In fact according to Professor Williams, there are more women than men graduating from law school (60%) and more women than men admitted to legal practice (63%). So while women are making up the breadth of law graduates and legal practitioners, they are still under-represented before Australia’s highest court, on the bench and in senior legal positions.
Decades of research has shown that socially diverse groups create thought diversity which makes us better problem-solvers, more creative, diligent and hard-working. Whether it be diversity of thought, race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, a diverse workforce ensures innovation, breakthrough solutions and efficient processes.
With this is mind, in late 2016 the Law Council of Australia introduced its National Model Gender Equitable Briefing Policy. According to the report, ‘the Policy includes interim and long term targets with the ultimate aim of briefing women in at least 30 per cent of all matters and paying 30 per cent of the value of all brief fees by 2020. The Policy is intended to drive cultural change within the legal profession, support the progression and retention of women barristers, and address the significant pay gap and under-representation of women in the superior courts.’
To support this, the Law Council of Australia will launch a national campaign against unconscious bias amongst lawyers which will consist of workshops and online courses. It is hoped that this will help lawyers to come to terms with their inherent biases and resist acting on unconscious programming. If we use these tools to embrace diversity in the legal profession, we will reap the benefits as we seek to administer justice.
#BeBoldForChange #IWD2017 Happy International Women’s Day!
“Here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.”