Recognising the talents of female lawyers isn’t hard – they’re right in front of you, writes Conrad Liveris, who has his own personal ‘equitable briefing’ policy.
A couple of years ago I had some time with Quentin Bryce to talk about women in the legal profession. It’s a complex topic so I went to one of the most eminent voices available.
A well functioning justice system, in my view, should seek to be reflective of the society it serves. That includes the government, judiciary and lawyers.
Dame Quentin told me that women lawyers were one of the most privileged groups in society, but the challenges they faced were tremendous and required some activism. Like me, she lamented that women have been the majority of law graduates since the 1980s but have not been able to climb to senior echelons alongside their male peers.
We agreed that the capability of female lawyers outstrips many other marginalised groups.
The disparities between male and female lawyers is striking. The Law Council of Australia cites that the gender pay is up to 140 per cent in some areas of the profession. George Williams, Dean of Law at UNSW, found that despite the average High Court case having 4.3 barristers, more than 50 per cent of them had no female barrister. And despite dozens of efforts by various parts of the profession, in NSW alone less than 10 per cent of senior counsel are women.
This is a profession that proves that even when women are the majority they can, remarkably, still be overlooked.
Like all client facing professions, money talks. Promotions at firms are, in significant part, due to the money the lawyers bring in. That’s what is driving the Equitable Briefing Policy of the Law Council, which is bringing major firms, corporate Australia and the bar together to support the work of women lawyers.
Through a growth-focused target, they are bringing more work to women in the profession.
That’s undeniably positive, and it’s something we can do in our own lives. When I have sought lawyers, for personal and professional reasons, I have always asked for a female lawyer to be involved in the advice. It’s the same principle as the Equitable Briefing Policy, but on a personal level, and it wasn’t hard.
When I first started doing this I thought back to my (brief) time at law school, my female peers didn’t just outnumber me, they topped my classes. They flew ahead leaving us guys to the side. However, when it came to getting jobs and promotions in firms they are still too often ignored.
Dumbfounded, I asked a senior barrister about how he approaches this issue. He is a model silk with a fierce reputation and always ensures there are women on his team. He might be generalising a bit, but finds a rigour that more ambitious male peers miss.
Of course, some men will loathe these policies and some women will say they don’t want the leg up. But this isn’t preferential treatment, given the vast pool of talent being under-utilised. Highlighting this pool makes a more competitive profession and asks men to step up, it is highlighting the talent that is there.
Women lawyers work hard and, but still face deep structural challenges. While the profession is a demanding and with a dog-eat-dog culture there is no reason why 70 per cent of judges and 80 per cent of partners are male – especially since most were educated in the 80s or later.
Bryce is still right, some activism would go a long way. That can start with us by asking simple questions about the diversity of the team we are working with when we seek services.
That won’t start a revolution, but it can cause some action for those on the other side.
Conrad Liveris is on the judging panel of the 2017 Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards, which includes an Emerging Leader in the Legal Sector category. Entries close Thursday the 24th.