‘Discrimination is difficult to remove where it is hidden from view’: Legal bodies react to NSW profile of solicitors

06 July 2022 By Lauren Croft

More work is needed – both within the profession and in legislative changes – to fight discrimination and the gender pay gap in the legal industry, these legal bodies have argued.

Last week, the 2021 Annual Profile of Solicitors in NSW was released, revealing a growing legal profession that’s increasingly made up of people from culturally diverse backgrounds, as well as a growing majority of women and younger practitioners.

The new research revealed that in NSW, a total of 37,186 solicitors held a practising certificate as of October 2021, up from 35,709 in the previous year, representing a 4 per cent growth. Since 1997, the number of solicitors holding an NSW practising certificate has grown from 13,409 to 37,186; an increase of 177 per cent.

But despite female solicitors outnumbering their male counterparts in the legal profession in NSW for the fifth consecutive year, the gender pay gap still exists across the profession.

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This issue is one of deep importance, said the president of the Law Society of NSW Joanne van der Plaat.

“The Law Society is very much alive to the gender pay and career opportunity challenges facing law firms,” she said.

“We are committed to working with the profession to assist in developing ways of nurturing all their talent. We’ll have more to say on this in the future.”

According to the report, a greater proportion of full-time males earn over $150,000 compared to full-time females. Fifty-nine per cent of female solicitors reported earning less than $150,000 per year compared to 48 per cent of males.

In addition, over a quarter of males reported earning more than $200,000 (28 per cent), compared to 19 per cent of females. The gap was most noticeable in mature career stages but less so for more junior lawyers; showing a promising trend of the gender pay gap decreasing.

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To fight these issues, president of the Women Lawyers Association of NSW Renée Bianchi said that those in the profession need to have open conversations and be more vocal about their remuneration.

“The findings reflect what the Women Lawyers Association of New South Wales (WLANSW) has identified in its Law Firm Comparison Study. The findings also raise a number of issues WLANSW has been advocating for some time — gender pay equity, diversity in the profession so it truly reflects the society which it serves, and the lack of women in senior leadership roles in the legal profession,” she said.

“I am hopeful that those within our profession become more vocal about ensuring they are paid the same as those doing the same role as them. We often hear of women who find out that a man junior to them, or reporting to them, is being paid more. I also hope that firms look to ensure transparency around remuneration. The process of bonuses, pay rises, and promotions should be clear.”

The Law Council of Australia has also implemented a number of initiatives for female solicitors, including their equitable briefing policy and a diversity policy for adoption by law societies, bar associations, law firms, chambers and other entities associated with the legal profession. Additionally, the LCA has called for the Australian government to implement measures to address the gender pay gap and suggested measures to improve gender equality in the workplace, according to president Tass Liveris.

“The Law Council is of the view that the federal government has an obligation under international law to introduce laws aimed at bringing about equal remuneration for work of equal value, with Australia having ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and the Equal Remuneration Convention, and the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention,” he said.

“Laws that prohibit discrimination based on gender and provide for equal remuneration for work of equal value have not removed the gender pay gap. Differences in remuneration for work of equal value remain. Discrimination is difficult to remove where it is hidden from view. The Law Council has a particular interest where this affects the legal profession, including the retention and progression of women lawyers.”

Furthermore, the LCA’s National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS), which investigated and analysed the drivers for attrition of women from the legal profession, found in 2014 that one way to attract and retain lawyers in private practice could be to offer greater transparency for employees around rights and reasonable expectations, Mr Liveris added.

“The NARS identified culture (including sexual harassment and discrimination), a desire for flexible working conditions, and wanting better work/life balance as key drivers of the attrition of women from private legal practice, as well as key barriers to reengagement,” he said.

“In December 2020, the Law Council published the National Action Plan to Reduce Sexual Harassment in the Australian Legal Profession, which charts a path forward that addresses the regulatory and cultural change factors necessary to facilitate better experiences for legal professionals.”

‘Discrimination is difficult to remove where it is hidden from view’: Legal bodies react to NSW profile of solicitors
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