A major investigative report into the status of women in the legal profession has been launched by the Law Society of New South Wales.
The Advancement of Women in the Profession: Report and Recommendations is the culmination of a thought leadership project launched earlier this year and spearheaded by Law Society president Stuart Westgarth.
The report is based on discussions held during 12 roundtable sessions with both men and women within the profession, as well as demographic data identifying trends pertaining to female lawyers in NSW.
At a breakfast held in Sydney this morning (1 December), the only female managing partner of a top 30 Australian law firm, Henry Davis York's Sharon Cook, reminded the audience of the progress women have made in the legal profession over the last 30 years.
"In 1998, only 20 per cent of solicitors in NSW were women. In 2010, it is almost 46 per cent," she said. "There are more than five times the number of women lawyers than there were in 1998: 2,000 women in 1988 compared to 11,000 of us today. Female solicitors have made real inroads in the Government sector and the corporate sector, and women can confidently wear trousers to work!"
Cook relayed an anecdote about when she and fellow speaker Justice Julie Ward started out as young lawyers.
"There was an unspoken rule that women did not wear trousers to the office, lest there be a need to race up to court where one might not be 'seen' [by the judge] if so attired," she said.
Breaking down barriers
One of the primary conclusions of the report is that while many women are now finding fulfilling careers in the law, there are still numerous barriers and impediments for women wanting to advance their careers.
While Cook referred to "structural barriers", such as the cost of childcare, a slow shift in parental leave benefits and the availability of flexible work practices, she said women must also overcome so-called "belief barriers".
"Women need to change the way we think," she said. "Men expect power to be part of their lives. They expect to succeed. Women are more circumspect and less confident. We have to stop doubting ourselves so profoundly."
The report also found that while the number of female partners in private practice has increased by five percentage points in the past five years, women are still greatly outnumbered by men in senior positions.
Cook believes this has much to do with how women perceive themselves.
"Ralph Norris (the former CEO of Commonwealth Bank of Australia) likes to tell this story," said Cook. "When a senior leadership position is advertised, it might state that there are 10 competencies required. A male candidate will look at the ad and say. 'Well, I meet three of the competencies. I might as well give it a go'. A female candidate will look at the ad and say, 'I only meet eight of the competencies and so I won't apply for the job'. Or the woman presents at the interview and focuses on what she can't do rather than what she can do."
Cook said law firms could learn much by looking at the strategies adopted by those in the banking sector.
"When Bob Joss arrived [at Westpac] and said, 'Where are all the women?' he set about making structural change within Westpac," she said. "Now, Westpac has a good number of women in leadership positions - not as many as they would like - with Gail Kelly as the CEO. Ralph Norris did the same at CBA. Law firms have much to learn from the excellent work which has been done at both Westpac and CBA on the advancement of women."
Time for change
In his address, Westgarth pointed out the particular difficulties faced by women in private practice, as figures in the report indicate a greater proportion of junior women are leaving private practice than junior men. "This is different to the profession overall, where there is little variation between the rates at which men and women solicitors leave the profession," he said. "It is also very different to corporate and government practice, where it appears there is an increase in the proportion of women over time."
Westgarth also said he believes there is now a genuine desire to confront this issue.
"We believe that there is an appetite for continued change in the profession which can be further stimulated by the facilitative recommendations in our report," he said. "It is recognised, however, that there is a need for continued monitoring of progress. The Law Society will therefore report on the implementation of the recommendations and publish updated statistics in around 18 months and will conduct an evaluation in three years' time."
The report concludes with 12 recommendations emanating from the research, including a continuation of thought leadership events throughout 2012, the provision of business development training, assisting workplaces to develop flexible workplace options, and sharing "tips" put forward by practitioners during the roundtable sessions.
Of these "tips", said Westgarth, there was one which stood out to him as being particularly valuable: "Be brave, work out what you want, and ask for it".
The report was authored by Heather Moore and Kate Potter, with Lauren Hann coordinating the project. It is available on the Law Society's website.