Achieving equality of opportunity within the legal profession is not only a matter of addressing gender issues, a top judge told last week’s LawAsiadownunder2005 conference.
Speaking at a session on what she said was often categorised as “the chick topic”, the Chief Justice of Victoria, Marilyn Warren, said equal opportunity is still seen largely as a gender issue.
The achievement of a fully representative profession, however, involves considering questions such as race, religion, Aboriginality and disability.
“Men can therefore now step up to the mark to talk about equal opportunity,” Warren said. There was also a need to accommodate the needs of women who want to leave the profession to have families but do not want to discontinue their legal careers.
Research has shown that in Victoria women are dropping out of the profession around five to seven years after qualification, Warren said.
One reason for this is that they are being used in law firms “to run the coalface of litigation”, frequently leading to burnout. “But also, about the seven-year [post qualification] mark is when a lot of women are thinking about their quality of life and about having children,” she said. “After all, the clock is ticking.”
This has meant there are a only a small number of women with sufficient experience to join the Bench. “The problem is that there is only a small pool for judicial appointment,” Warren said, “and most of that small group of women have now been ‘creamed off’.”
That pool could be enlarged by conditions that are more likely to encourage women to remain in the profession. For example, research conducted by Victorian Women Lawyers has shown there is a clear need for women to be able to work part time, which would make it easier for them to have families while continuing to practise.
The prospect of many years in judicial office could be made more attractive by offering women — and also men — earlier retirement, Warren said.
“The message is: women don’t stop,” she added. “But it’s a hard thing to be the only woman on the Bench.” Only four of the 34 judges of the Victorian Supreme Court, including the Court of Appeal, are women.
President of Australian Women Lawyers Noor Bloomer said there are currently insufficient statistics to properly monitor the progress of women in the legal profession, and she called for a central coordinating body to oversee collection of these data.
Law Council of Australia President John North said there is a project underway, but it was critical that it be ongoing and able to be updated.