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‘More young women are seeing a career in law as an attractive option’

With more women now entering the legal profession than men, two senior legal executives spoke to Lawyers Weekly about what’s enticing women to the profession and why this trend will continue.

user iconLauren Croft 23 August 2021 Big Law
Sarah Bullock and Rebecca Maslen-Stannage
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According to the fifth annual National Profile of Solicitors report, released last month, there are now 44,581 women in law in Australia and 39,052 men. Two-thirds of those entering the profession have been female, with only 26 per cent of lawyers entering the profession have been men.

With more firms implementing diversity and gender parity measures to ensure female solicitors get equal chances to succeed, there is no doubt this trend will continue, for a number of reasons.

Sarah Bullock, partner at Cornwalls, said that a career in law is historically more flexible than ever before, which could account for some of the increase in female lawyers entering the profession.  


“When people think of law, they typically think of courtrooms and big law firms. We can thank a number of TV shows for that! However, the reality is that there are now multiple career paths in law and multiple ways law can be practised. A career in law is now more flexible, which is an enticing proposition for younger females,” she said.

“I think many young women are attracted by the fact that the law is seen as a rewarding career where you not only get to solve problems and think laterally, but also help people.

“I also believe a more recent driver behind young women making the choice to pursue law is the fact that law is becoming less of a male domain. Although there is still a long way to go before gender equality is reached, the legal profession is becoming more female-friendly – and in fact, more inclusive generally – which means more and more young women are seeing a career in law as an attractive option.”

As at October 2020, women make up 53 per cent of Australia’s legal profession, with male solicitors making up the rest. This follows on from a trend first observed in 2018, when female practitioners became the majority for the first time, while in 2011, women made up 46 per cent of the profession.

Rebecca Maslen-Stannage, chair and senior partner at Herbert Smith Freehills, said that this trend had been around for a long time – and that she would be curious to see if the number of women attracted to a career in law had increased in kind.

“For a long time now there have been more female law graduates than male, but before that, law had been a male-dominated industry. I think we are seeing the tipping point where after many years of more women than men entering the law, female lawyers now form a majority of overall industry numbers,” she said.

“It would be interesting to know whether the numbers of women attracted to law as a career have increased compared to the last decade, because we already had a significantly higher percentage of women than men entering a legal career a decade ago.

“Women are still not studying STEM subjects or entering STEM careers at the same rate as men. That is unfortunate for those industries, but in law it means we benefit from a disproportionate number of super-talented female graduates.”

As such, Ms Bullock said that leaders no longer need to focus on attracting young women into law – only retaining them.

“Fifty-three per cent of the profession across Australia is female, but on average, the number of females in senior positions tends to hover around 25 per cent. Leaders need to focus on ensuring workplaces are not only diverse, but genuinely inclusive,” she said.

“In order to create environments where both men and women can thrive, leaders need to have the empathy to ensure that discussions and behaviours in the workplace are inclusive and importantly, understand and speak out against unconscious bias.

“It is also important that we keep challenging the idea of ‘leadership’. If we want young women to aspire to have great careers in law, then we need to reduce the emphasis on ‘masculine’ qualities when discussing management and leadership styles.”

Similarly, Ms Maslen-Stannage stressed that whilst women in law are progressing well, firms need to “continually challenge” themselves to make sure that progression extends to senior leadership roles.

“While we need to continue to be vigilant, younger female lawyers are doing very well in career progression. We do need continued focus to make sure that extends through to the highest level of seniority including partnership and senior leadership roles in the legal profession,” she said.

“We continually challenge ourselves to make sure we are not applying conscious or unconscious bias and that everyone has the same opportunity to do well at our firm. We need to continue our efforts across the industry to ensure that is also reflected at the senior leadership levels, including partner level, not just in industry numbers overall.”

In addition to being done from the top-down, fostering female talent can be done by more men sponsoring and mentoring younger female lawyers, according to Ms Bullock.

“Female lawyers at all levels are often confronted with unconscious biases and in terms of career progression, studies have indicated that men are often hired or promoted based on their potential, whereas women are hired or promoted for their experience and track record,” she said.

“Although women can support each other and acknowledge the experiences of their colleagues, ultimately female lawyers need the support from those who hold the senior positions – the positions which are disproportionately occupied by men. Male champions are therefore crucial to change, until such time as there is more gender parity at the senior ranks.

“It is generally acknowledged that a man will apply for a job if he meets some of the job requirements, whereas a woman will only apply if she meets all of the job requirements. When you translate this sentiment into the context of legal practice, you realise that unless younger female lawyers are supported and encouraged to reach their full potential, you risk squandering some great talent.”

However, both women were hopeful for the future of the legal industry – and female solicitors’ position within it.

“I believe women will continue to be attracted to the profession and importantly, more and more of those women will choose to remain in the profession. The profession is becoming more mindful of gender equality and the ‘boy’s club’ mentality is less tolerated,” Ms Bullock said.

Ms Maslen-Stannage agreed, and added that as long as law schools continue to have more female students, she expects more female solicitors to succeed in the profession.

“In terms of numbers, logic says as long as there continue to be more women than men graduating from law school, the overall proportion of women in the legal industry will increase further,” she said.