Goodbye job applications, hello dream career
Seize control of your career and design the future you deserve with LW career

Lack of access, isolation: The trials of being a regional practitioner

Regional lawyers face unique challenges compared to their metropolitan counterparts, but mentorship programs run by lawyers in local areas are coming to their aid.

user iconMalavika Santhebennur 09 October 2023 Big Law
expand image

Second Floor Selborne Chambers barrister Michelle Meares described these challenges ahead of the Women in Law Forum 2023, where she will be offering strategies for supporting female lawyers in regional, rural, and remote areas across Australia.

She said both female and male lawyers in these areas lack access to professional development and networking opportunities and face issues like isolation and loneliness.

Ms Meares is one of the founders of NSW Regional Women Lawyers, a body aimed at providing current and future women lawyers in remote areas of NSW access to the same benefits and opportunities as their Sydney CBD colleagues.


She said that at their recent conference in Orange, some practitioners reported working at the only law firm in their town, which creates several hurdles.

“It creates issues around potential conflicts of interest in their practice,” Ms Meares told Lawyers Weekly.

“It’s also challenging for them to find support, which could affect their mental health. So, it’s important for regional lawyers to have the opportunities to network and support each other.”

In addition, access to justice is a significant hurdle for regional and rural lawyers, Ms Meares pointed out, given the distances they may have to travel to court.

Moreover, these lawyers may not have access to some of the services available to their metropolitan colleagues, such as rehabilitation programs for their clients or professional supervision services for parenting matters in family law.

Hurdles faced by women

Some challenges are specific to women in the regions, including outdated mindsets, limited opportunities for promotion, and access to professional development days, according to Ms Meares.

Data from various sources reveal that while women are closing the gap in various roles across the law, the gender gap widens in senior and partnership positions.

For example, according to the Law Society of NSW, 67 per cent of young solicitors (admitted within the last five years) working in rural or country areas were women, representing a 2 per cent jump since 2018.

Figures from the NSW Law Society revealed that the proportion of female lawyers exceeded males, where 54 per cent of the profession are women in the state.

However, closer scrutiny showed greater disparities, as less than a third of women lead law firms (29 per cent are partners/principals). By contrast, over half of male solicitors (54 per cent) are partners/principals.

According to the NSW Bar Association, only 620 out of 2,421 barristers (26 per cent) and 53 out of 380 senior counsels (14 per cent) are female.

The importance of mentorship, collegiality

When asked how this gender gap could be narrowed in the legal profession, particularly in regional and rural areas, Ms Meares underscored the importance of providing mentorship programs.

“For example, in Newcastle, there is a shortage of female barristers practising,” Ms Meares said, attributing it to the departure of two female barristers after they were appointed to the bench of the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia.

They left a void as they were the women everyone briefed in that area, she added.

“NSW public defender Elizabeth McLaughlin set up a mentoring program in early 2022 to help more women move to the Bar so that there would be more available to be briefed. The program matched women with barristers who were already mentors,” Ms Meares said.

The program included monthly breakfast sessions, assistance with study preparation, and insights into the reality of working at the Bar, how to establish chambers, how to work with solicitors, and how to balance work with personal life.

“Out of the mentees who participated in that program, four of them are at the Bar, and two are currently in Bar practice courses. That is going to significantly increase the number of women practising at the Bar in Newcastle,” Ms Meares said.

Targeted programs led by female lawyers in the local area can be effective, Ms Meares said, adding that the NSW Regional Women Lawyers organises conferences in regional areas to showcase the talent of local, regional, rural and female lawyers.

“It’s a chance to support connections between women in different rural and regional areas across the state,” she concluded.

To hear more from Michelle Meares about how to support female lawyers in regional, rural, and remote areas, come along to the Women in Law Forum 2023.

It will be held on Thursday, 23 November, at Crown Melbourne.

Click here to book your tickets and don’t miss out!

For more information, including agenda and speakers, click here.

You need to be a member to post comments. Become a member for free today!