2 Feb 2016

Equal number of female, male lawyers for first time

8:00 am on 2 February 2016

This year will mark the first time there'll be equal numbers of men and women lawyers.

Women law graduates have outnumbered men for more than a decade, and the Law Society says those practicing will soon overtake men.

While 60 percent of law graduates are women, less than 40 percent become partners, according to the Law Society.

Photo: 123rf

However, its figures also show 35 percent of directors and 24 percent of partners are women, while fewer than one in five Queen's Counsel are women.

Longstanding employment lawyer Peter Cullen said he had seen huge progress since he started in the 1970s, and he was confident things at the top end would soon even out.

"The difficulty women face is that they usually look after the children and take a year or so off, but I think despite that we'll still see the number of women in senior positions match those in the profession," he said.

But Ursula Cheer - who has just become the first ever female Dean of Canterbury University's law school - said pinning the blame on child rearing was too easy.

"The profession itself has to change - law firms are quite keen on looking after the physical wellbeing of its workers, for example they might subsidise a gym on-site, why not have a creche on site as well?" she said.

"That's the question I ask and I haven't got an answer yet."

One of the country's most high profile lawyers, Mai Chen, said women who wanted to go far in law needed to be completely dedicated.

"If you decide you want to do top law, then you generally find that clients have very demanding problems and they are sometimes urgent," she said.

"Is that consistent with a fantastic work/life balance? I haven't found that to be the case, but I think we should keep trying."

In October, the London School of Economics recommended mandatory quotas in law, and said they would not necessarily "disrespect" women who were afraid they were not appointed on merit.

"In the context of failure of existing policies to tackle the over-representation of men in the upper echelons of the legal profession, we believe that anyone seriously committed to the gender injustice and equality must be prepared to consider a more radical approach," it said.

Ms Cheer said the jury was still out on quotas.

"Some argue that firms would appoint people who aren't up to the job because they have to be a woman and they might not be good enough, or that women who are appointed on a quota will be given a harder time because there would be questions about their ability," she said.

"But quotas do succeed in getting the numbers up."

The Law Society's executive director, Christine Grice, said unconscious bias - which is the idea that an employer will unconsciously favour an equally qualified man - needs to be tackled.

"There's now extensive research indicating that that is a subtle and effective problem that's causing women to not get the advancement that men get and we need to be looking at how we can better educate men about that," she said.

She said the Law Society plans on better training for its members about unconscious bias - something Ms Cheer said was necessary.

"We know this still goes on anecdotally, and that a law firm might think a woman isn't completely committed because she might go off and have children and that will be it," she said.

Gender inequality is not just confined to law - it was recently revealed the pay gap between men and women in the state sector ranges between 1 percent, in some departments, to 39 percent.

The joint-worst offender was Crown Law.

Ms Chen said the legal field must set an example.

"We're lawyers and the law makes it clear that you shouldn't discriminate on the basis of sex or racial origins," she said.

"We do understand the law and we should follow it - we're officers of the court."

Ms Cheer said now she was Dean, the Canterbury law school would do more to educate women about the issues preventing them from climbing the legal ladder, and how to combat them.

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