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Boldness pays dividends for calling to the bar

Female lawyers contemplating their calling to the bar have been urged to give it a go by barrister Michelle Painter SC.

user iconMelissa Coade 27 May 2016 The Bar
Boldness pays dividends for calling to the bar
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Speaking at a Law Week event hosted by the NSW Women Lawyers Association, Ms Painter urged female lawyers considering the bar to be bold and lead their own ambitions.

"What’s the worst that could happen if you come to the bar?" Ms Painter asked an audience at Martin Place Chambers.

"The worse that will happen is that you fail for a six-month period of your life and you’ll go and do something else. Well, that’s not so bad.


"Ultimately, the important thing is to do what makes your heart sing – even if it’s a bit scary."

For all lawyers, the decision to sit bar examinations raises big personal and professional questions. Many seasoned solicitors flirt with the idea of becoming a barrister over the course of their careers, but the choice often boils down to the right combination of circumstance and bravery.

"It’s a decision that only you should make. Don’t be talked out of it if that’s what you really want to do," Ms Painter said.

However, she acknowledged the barriers holding back women from becoming barristers.

"We understand that there are some very sensible, good and benign reasons for the lower participation rate of women [barristers] but there are also many other reasons that are less benign," she said.

"When I started as a barrister back in 1998, there were three women silks – the numbers were pretty depressing. Today, of about 2,500 practising barristers in NSW, there are about 400 silks and only 36 of them are women," Ms Painter said.

Ms Painter, who took silk in 2013, drew on her 18 years at the bar to share insights into the autonomy that is enjoyed and stamina which is demanded of a barrister.

"There is independence, job satisfaction and you get to control your working environment in a very real way. It can be very demanding and tiresome," Ms Painter said.

On making the decision to pursue professional life as a barrister, lawyers sign up for very public wins and failures – but that should not be a deterrent to women in making their choice, Ms Painter said.

"Your client will rely on you to be the ‘mouthpiece’, the communicator between them and the court. That is a very serious thing and there’s a real, immense satisfaction from doing good work.

"The exciting cases that make your career and your eyes light up are the ones where it was evenly balanced and it was your work, your brilliant advocacy which made a difference. If you can have one or two of those every couple of years, you’re doing well," Ms Painter said.

Sandra Duggan SC of Martin Place Chambers and Talitha Fishburn of 7 Wentworth Selborne Chambers also spoke at the Coming to the bar event. Norton Rose Fulbright partner and head of office Felicity Rourke also shared her career journey and extensive experience briefing barristers.

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