There must be something in the water at Mallesons Stephen Jaques, with the announcement of solicitor Julie Ward’s upcoming appointment to the Supreme Court coming within months of that of fellow firm alumni Justice Emilios Kyrou.
As well as being one of the few private practitioners to make the leap straight to the bench, Julie Ward will be the first woman directly appointed in New South Wales. NSW Attorney-General John Hatzistergos made the recommendation to Governor Marie Bashir early last week. The official swearing-in ceremony will be held on 29 September.
Ward is no stranger to making her mark, in 1992 she became one of the youngest ever partners at Mallesons. Despite this early experience in the spotlight, she says the overwhelming response to her most recent appointment has taken her by surprise.
“It didn’t seem such a pioneering step when I became a partner [at Mallesons] because by the time I became a partner at the firm, there were already women partners. The first step in this firm in that regard was the appointment of Robyn Chalmers.
“People said I was very young but it didn’t overwhelm me as much I suppose as the response I’ve had to the news of my announcement to the Supreme Court, which has been extremely positive,” Ward said.
Ward says she has spent much of her career “in and out of court rooms,” albeit as an instructing solicitor, for the past 25 years and she anticipates a few challenges, but a generally smooth transition into her new role.
“I think one of the challenges for a solicitor making that move is to feel comfortable that they can deal with the day-to-day issues that will crop up in the courtroom, and in particular the evidentiary issues” she said.
“And the other challenge will simply come from the fact that it is a big responsibility and I’m very conscious that it is a very big responsibility. It’s the administration of justice, and that carries with it a sense of duty.”
The number of women in the ranks of the judiciary is creeping up, but Ward admits that progress has been slow, if not glacial.
“It is a long process. In some respects it has to be, because we need to make appointments and promotions within all branches of the legal profession based on merit. Over 50 per cent of our intake of lawyers are women. What we have to address, and what we as a firm are looking at how to address, is how to encourage more of those women to go on to partnership.
Ward has two children, both in their late teens, who she raised with the assistance of a supportive family network while climbing the corporate ladder. She believes the new generation of lawyers don’t see this path as an attractive option, a perception that must be addressed if firms want to retain their top female talent.
“It’s not a question of lack of opportunity within a firm. It’s a question of, nowadays women are making their own choices about how they want to balance their work and their families, and they don’t always make the same choices that women of my generation did.”
Speaking of retention, how is Mallesons coping with the poaching of their top talent by the nation’s top courts?
“Everyone has been very happy for me [at Mallesons]. I have had some very kind messages that have suggested it’s a personal honour to me but a loss to the firm and I’m really touched by those. I think everyone is happy for me.
When asked if there is something about the Mallesons lawyer that makes them particularly suited to making this transition, Ward says that the focus on ongoing training is key to their court room prowess,
“The firm over the years has had a very strong focus on legal excellence and training. So our lawyers are encouraged to develop their academic skills — to put them into practice in a practical commercial context. So hopefully that kind of training sits us well to be considered for this kind of opportunity.”