Value of briefs to women barristers highlights ongoing gender pay issues in law
While new data from the Law Council shows that targets are being met on equitable briefing rates, the percentage of brief fees going to women barristers is at its lowest level in four years.
Recently, the Attorney-General’s Department released the Legal Services Expenditure Report for the 2021–22 financial year.
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In that year, the Commonwealth exceeded its publicly stated targets to brief: senior female barristers (that is, women barristers with either 10 or more years of experience at the Bar or those who are silks) for at least 25 per cent of briefs (or 25 per cent by value), and junior female barristers for at least 30 per cent of briefs (or 30 per cent by value).
As detailed in the report from the Attorney-General’s Department:
- More than two in five (43.8 per cent) of briefs to junior barristers went to women.
- Nearly three in 10 (28 per cent) of briefs to senior barristers went to women.
- Almost half (48.4 per cent) of the value of briefs to junior barristers went to women.
- One-third (32.7 per cent) of the value of briefs to senior barristers went to women.
However, while the Commonwealth is doing its part, it appears that the rest of the profession is still falling short when it comes to elevating the value of briefs going to female barristers, and thus addressing the gender pay gap.
The extent to which progress is being made on equitable briefing, profession-wide, was explored in a recent podcast episode with barrister Dr Kylie Weston-Scheuber and Victorian government solicitor Matthew Hocking.
On Monday, 18 December, the Law Council of Australia released its 2022-2023 Equitable Briefing Policy Annual Report, outlining the aggregated data from a total of 189 briefing entities and barristers about their briefing practices.
The report showed that targets are being met in terms of briefing rates but that the value of briefs to women barristers is not improving – in fact, it has gone backwards.
In a statement, Law Council president Luke Murphy said: “The good news is that the briefing rate of women barristers has exceeded the target the profession set for itself when the Equitable Briefing Policy was launched in 2016. The goal was 30 per cent, and briefing rates in 2022–23 were 31 per cent.”
However, what is most significant about these figures, he reflected, “is that throughout the seven years we have been collecting data, the value of brief fees to women barristers, while up from 2016, has never matched the briefing rate”.
“For example, in the 2021–22 year, briefing rates were 30 per cent, but the value of brief fees to women barristers was 26 per cent,” he said.
This year, the value of brief fees has fallen compared to 2021–22 and is just 20 per cent. This makes the percentage of brief fees going to women barristers “the lowest in four years”, Mr Murphy noted.
“Feedback suggests potential reasons for the discrepancy between briefing rates and fees include the types of clients, calibres of briefs, and areas of work more commonly offered to women. These structural issues of gender inequality will require further examination and effort to address,” he explained.
LCA further detailed that this latest report showed briefing rates of senior women barristers (those with 10 or more years of experience as a barrister) declined between 2021–2022 and 2022–23 and are below the 30 per cent target.
“However, briefing rates for junior women barristers [were] maintained at 41 per cent. This indicates that innovative and inclusive strategies to support career retention, development and progression for all barristers will continue to be important,” Mr Murphy added.
Next year, LCA will undertake its second review of its Equitable Briefing Policy and consider whether its scope should be broadened or its terms and thresholds strengthened.
“This will include consideration of additional questions posed to policy adoptees to help fill some of these gaps in the structural picture behind briefing practices,” Mr Murphy said.
Lawyers Weekly has, in 2023, extensively covered the ever-pervasive gender pay gap in law.
The 1.1 per cent drop in the pay gap, as noted in the recently released Workplace Gender Equality Agency WGEA scorecard for 2023, is “nothing to celebrate”, as practitioners told this brand, with “active interventions needed” to meaningfully move the needle.
Ahead of the recent Women in Law Forum 2023, WGEA chief executive Mary Wooldridge argued that the gender pay gap in law is driven by “significant compositional issues” in senior and partnership roles.
Looking ahead, Mr Murphy said that LCA is grateful for the “continued reporting efforts of policy adoptees and commend them on their own individual voluntary efforts to achieve equitable briefing outcomes”.
“It is very encouraging to hear the range of initiatives barristers and briefing entities are proactively taking to improve briefing practices and the fact a number reported having exceeded the policy targets on an individual basis,” he concluded.
As recently reported by Lawyers Weekly, a new executive for the Law Council has been elected, with a West Australian senior counsel being appointed as the organisation’s president for 2024.