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NSW Law Society commits to stronger profession in 2021

With the profession still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, the new NSW Law Society president has made big plans for the year ahead that move beyond the recovery stages and ensure legal workplaces emerge more diverse and inclusive.

user iconNaomi Neilson 05 February 2021 Big Law
Juliana Warner
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In her address to the Opening of Law Term event, new president Juliana Warner told the audience of judges, barristers and solicitors that she is proud of what the Law Society has done and will move on to do in 2021, including supporting all legal practitioners from across the state to survive the next 12, COVID-affected months. 

Reflecting on the past year, Ms Warner said that while some found themselves in better shape than originally expected, “others are barely hanging in there”. From sole practitioners of boutique firms through to the chief executives of major legal teams, Ms Warner said it was the innovation and adaptability of the profession that got it this far. 

“The ability to adapt to one of the greatest public health crises in our lifetime was shared by solicitors across NSW, our colleagues at the bar, judicial officers on the bench and staff in courts and tribunals,” Ms Warner said, adding: “It was a powerful illustration of our commitment to finding ways to continue to serve and to keep the administration of justice advancing.” 

 
 

Looking ahead and acknowledging that the short to medium-term business outlook may still be filled with “disruption and uncertainty”, Ms Warner said she is committed to capturing the innovative practices that were successful during the pandemic – “many of which have not previously been considered” – and share them broadly. 

She is also keen to include business development topics and skills acquired over the last 12 months in ongoing initiatives, such as the 2021 Future of Law and Innovation in the Profession (FLIP) program, which she hopes will be of interest to all lawyers, “but particularly smaller firms and sole practitioners hit the hardest by the pandemic”. 

Part of seeing the profession through to the other side of the pandemic is also a commitment by Ms Warner to see it be more diverse and inclusive than ever. Looking back at her career in the 1980s, Ms Warner said it was a “pretty challenging time for women” to enter the profession and to make it beyond junior roles. 

While delivering her speech, she stops to correct a colleague that introduced her and commended that she had been a member of the Law Society since 1987. Ms Warner said it was “actually a lot more years”, but that she had taken some time to have and raise children and her membership had lapsed as a result. It came back in 1987.

“In general, we were paid less, we were regarded as ‘not committed to our careers when we had children, and we weren’t given the equivalent opportunities to those given to male colleagues,” Ms Warner said. “Back then, we didn’t speak about unconscious bias because there was nothing unconscious about it.”

Some 30 years later, Ms Warner said the prospects of women in the profession “are so much brighter” and that she is proud of the men and women who have spoken out against old attitudes and “helped create change over the decades”. 

In 2021, Ms Warner will focus on improving the legal lives of not just women, but those affected by a disability and those discriminated against for their culture or religion: “It’s about getting people from all sorts of backgrounds into the profession, onto the bench and holding positions of leadership. Our institutions and organisations need to reflect the communities that we serve.” 

While the courts and commissions have “proved agile” during the pandemic in their ability to transition quickly to online hearings and embracing technologies that allow remote access to justice, she said there is still a need for adequate resources. 

With the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal clearing 80,000 civil cases a year and the Local Court clearing 78,000 civil and 340,000 criminal, “the workload of magistrates and tribunal members is ferocious and they could do with some cavalry”. The Law Society will use 2021 to lobby the government for more support. 

Looking to the reputation of the profession – particularly after recent events in the US – Ms Warner said she hopes to communicate to the community how important legal practitioners are. It also means building up the places where the rule of law has collapsed and the system has been broken, leading to citizen distrust. 

“In country towns and urban centres, in the remote areas of our state and across the Greater Sydney region, solicitors are important parts of the community, volunteering time, energy and expertise to make society better. Look at the way our profession responded in the wake of the 2019 and 2020 bushfires and how quickly our members were willing to provide pro bono help,” she said.

“It is these ideas I want to help ventilate during my year as president.”