Presiding over the state’s final admission ceremony for November, Victorian Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Warren AC (pictured) paused to observe a “dramatic shift” in gender representation in Victoria’s legal profession.
“A Chinese philosopher once said ‘women hold up half the sky’. In Victoria, I like to think now that women hold up half of the law,” the Chief Justice said.
Marilyn Warren is the first woman to be appointed to the position of Chief Justice in Australia. She also currently serves as the patron of the Victorian Women Lawyers (VWL) association, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last month.
“Today 64 per cent of the new lawyers are women. For the year, 60 per cent of the lawyers admitted so far have been women.
“This change in diversity is something that must be remarked upon. It is also a sign of the future,” the judge said at a special ceremony hosted in the Banco Court in Victoria.
Flanked on the bench by Justice Michael McDonald and Justice Jane Dixon, CJ Warren reflected on a time not too long ago when no groups existed to champion equality in the profession. She applauded the vision and support of the Law Institute of Victoria, which helped with the establishment of VWL two decades ago.
“[VWL] has been an important lobby and influence group. It has advised the law institute, government and government agencies and the community of the importance and value of the legal profession that welcomes and supports the views of women,” she said.
CJ Warren’s remarks came on the 175th anniversary of the first sitting of the Victorian Supreme Court. As part of the historic admission ceremonies this year, new Victorian lawyers were gifted with a special copy of the history of the Supreme Court in the state.
The Chief Justice's comments also followed recent controversy in law, after sexual assault and harassment claims prompted a number of people to come out and suggest the legal profession is among the worst for the treatment of women.
Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, Professor Carloyn Evans from the University of Melbourne echoed the judge’s view that law has come a long way on the road to gender equality. With women now dominating the gender split among law graduates, the law dean said the progress is continuing.
“Women do very well academically and, at least in their law school experience, the days are long gone when it was a couple of women sitting in the front row and feeling very singled out, which used to be the case when you talk to our older alumni,” Professor Evans said.
According to Professor Evans, adjusting sexist attitudes and changing the unfair reality some professional women confront is part of a wider cultural shift towards workplace equality, which will take some time. She said that overhauling this culture goes beyond law, and pointed to this week’s US election result as proof.
“We’ve just seen Donald Trump’s election in the US and those elements of a wider culture, and certainly the online culture issues, are ones that I think law schools need to be conscious about.
“It is important to try and send a clear message that it’s not just about numerical equality, it’s also about a culture in which both men and women feel that they can have productive time both as students and then [in] a career,” Professor Evans said.
The law dean described CJ Warren as an outstanding role model and advocate to this end. The Victorian legal profession, in particular, owes much to her leadership on this issue, Professor Evans said.
“When you’re the Chief Justice that’s not a voice that can be dismissed or trivialised. I think CJ Warren’s influence has actually been very strong and positive on those issues over the last decade or so.”
In her address to the state’s new lawyers, the Chief Justice went on to describe other unique challenges contemporary Australian lawyers should expect. In the shadow of emerging technologies such as “computer judges”, she suggested that lawyers have to step up to remain relevant. Staying ahead of developments in technology and refining those skills remains critical, she said.
“Online dispute resolution ostensibly raises the spectre of lawyers, and indeed judges, becoming redundant.
“It will be a challenge for each and every one of you in your legal careers to see to it that the rule of law is applied, that justice is done and that you are not rendered redundant by an online procedure or a computer,” CJ Warren said.
The Chief Justice concluded with some final pearls of wisdom, urging the new practitioners to cultivate their “knowledge and love of the law” and advocacy skills. The importance of maintaining a keen self-awareness and focus on wellbeing were other key themes of the judge’s talk.