A WORKING group will be established to look at ways of helping female barristers in Victoria build relationships with clients and solicitors.
This decision follows a recent forum attended by representatives from national law firms, the Law Institute of Victoria, the judiciary and the Victorian Bar to review the operation of the Equal Opportunity Briefing Policy.
Alexandra Richards QC, chairperson of the Victorian Bar’s Equal Opportunity Committee, said a collaborative approach between the Bar and solicitors was needed to ensure female barristers developed the relationships needed to get briefed.
“I hope with the working party there might be some brainstorming to develop lateral ways of building relationships,” Richards said.
Simone Jacobson, convenor of the Women Barristers Association (WBA) said the WBA welcomed the working group , which would include members of the WBA committee.
“The issue with relationship building is that women often do not have the type of connections men do when coming to the Bar and unless they have worked in a large firm beforehand it can be difficult to receive that first brief in a complex matter from a large firm,” Jacobson said.
And according to Jacobson, women often weren’t able to invest as much time in networking as men.
“The big obstacle for women is the career interruption of having children and caring for them. One's contacts or solicitor referrals can go stale each time maternity leave is taken. Women are busy juggling their legal career and family lives and may give networking or opportunities which may generate contacts for them a lower priority out of sheer necessity,” she said.
The forum looked at how law firms get to know barristers well enough to feel comfortable briefing them. Trust and confidence were identified by law firms as the two most important aspects of a relationship with a barrister and these could only be met through a personal relationship or trusted referral source.
Firms said referrals from senior barristers were much more likely to result in a female barrister being briefed as opposed to a cold pitch from the barrister themselves, whilst barristers directories and curriculum vitaes were also seen as less useful.
“Women have run with the CV so it was interesting to see how useful solicitors found that, and that was a bit disappointing,” Richards says.
It was suggested at the forum that the Bar may consider measuring and analysing its own members’ performance in supporting and developing junior members, a proposal supported by the WBA.
Other suggestions were that female barristers present as part of firms’ in-house CLE programs, and that the Bar and in-house counsel hold joint events.
Richards said there is still a long way to go before female barristers enjoy relative parity with their male counterparts.
“It’s cultural and systemic change we are trying to achieve so it won’t happen overnight. In society women have had the vote for 100 years but there is still inequality there, so it’s going to take a long time but that’s not to say people should get too put off by it,” she said.
However, Richards was keen to point out that positive changes have already been made.
“Things have improved. The Victorian Bar has set the lead, since commissioning its 1998 report on gender. The number of women at the bar then was about 14 per cent and now it’s about 19 per cent. So women have increased as an overall percentage which is quite noteworthy,” she said.
Richards hoped other states will follow suit and look at how to further implement the Equal Opportunity Briefing Policy.
“The Victorian Bar has really taking the lead on this in adopting a policy and getting it implemented. But it will be great for other states and territories to follow their lead. I know there is a lot of interest in other states and territories and they aren’t really sure how to go about it, but all they really have to do is follow our model,” she said.