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Norman Waterhouse

All rise: Ensuring equality for women within the legal system

“It has been a long fight for the Women Lawyers’ Association of SA (WLASA) to ensure justice and equity for women,” said its president, Marissa Mackie.

“Going back 25 years ago, there were a number of challenges for women, as we’ve traditionally been a very male dominated profession,” said Mackie, a solicitor and barrister and principal at Norman Waterhouse.

“When we started, we had to ask to be heard on various issues involving women in the profession or the profession generally … now we are being asked for our opinion.”

The Association will be celebrating 25 years of work with an anniversary event on 21 March 2024 at The Treasury 1860. More details for this event can be found on the Association’s website.

The Association’s membership base started in 1999 with a handful of women. By 2012, there were 55 members. Today, membership numbers include more than 100 individuals and 21 corporate members that include various community legal centres and law firms, representing more than 260 further individuals across the profession (both men and women alike – over half of which are women). Corporate membership has been an offering of the Association since 2013.

“It is our members who give us our voice,” said Mackie.

Since 2010, the WLASA has met regularly with the South Australian Attorney-General to provide input and support on draft legislation in matters regarding women and the work of the Association more generally.

Most recently, this has included submissions on the proposed coercive control legislation, silk appointment processes, decriminalisation of sex work – a bill for which is due to be debated in parliament in coming months – and abortion law reforms.

The Association also offers the Find a Woman Lawyer listing, a database of women lawyers for members of the public who have a preference for or feel more comfortable working with a woman lawyer.

The first of its kind in Australia, the database has been running for almost eight years and, on average, receives around 200 searches each month and is promoted through the Office of Women.

The Association’s ongoing advocacy in its profession saw its release of the Charter for the Advancement of Women in the South Australian Legal Profession in 2019, with an aim to ensure women lawyers are afforded as much opportunity in their careers as their male counterparts.

Mackie said the Charter was referred to favourably by the Equal Opportunity Commission in its report into sexual and discriminatory harassment and bullying in the legal profession, and one of the Charter’s more recent signatories is the South Australian Attorney-General’s Department.

Understanding the need for such a Charter is easy when looking at industry surveys.

Since 1993, there have been more women than men graduating from law schools in Australia, yet the gender balance is flipped at the highest levels within firms.

“Obviously, there is a lot of unconscious bias … and people have been calling that out more and taken steps to reduce that,” Mackie said.

The legal profession as a whole has made efforts to address this through the Law Council of Australia’s National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS) Report and its Equitable Briefing Policy.

“NARS revealed there are a lot of factors with respect to flexible working, career advancement for women – particularly for those who have taken time off for parenting leave and the like – and also around … people’s perceptions of lawyers [being men],” Mackie said.

She said it had been a “constant push” to make the structural and cultural changes across the legal profession that will ensure women are afforded equal opportunities.

“There are a number of imbalances, particularly in respect to the gender pay gap and … in men typically taking up the [highest roles and being appointed as] the managing partners of law firms.

“But the Judiciary has come a long way in having greater representation of women.”

In all of the Commonwealth and State courts, including the Supreme Court, there have been advances in the proportion of women judges over the past 10 years.

Across all of the court system, women currently comprise almost 45 per cent of the Judiciary. The only outlier is Tasmania’s Supreme Court, which has only two women among its seven judges.

The situation regarding women barristers in Australia has not been as favourable, and more recently the Law Council developed its Equitable Briefing Policy to increase the briefing of women at the Independent Bar.

This followed the Council’s first commissioned report for financial year 2017, which revealed that Australia’s women barristers received just 20 per cent of the total briefs and only 15 per cent of the total fees charged. The most recent figures have women receiving 31 per cent of briefs and 20 per cent of fees.

Mackie said WLASA strongly advocated for its membership base to sign up to the Equitable Briefing Policy or adopt something similar.

“We’ve done a number of articles to get buy-in from the whole of the profession, men and women alike, because it’s not a women’s problem – it’s a wider, professional issue,” she said.

“We have a lot of men out there who are some of our strongest supporters.”

The stigma around men taking time off work for family duties or working flexibly, she said, needed to end in order to help advance opportunities for women.

To address this, WLASA has run campaigns highlighting the benefits of flexible working and carers leave for men.

Anecdotally, these were helping to make inroads, said Mackie, while COVID’s working from home mandate delivered a silver lining by showing it was possible.

Other key work by the Association has included the release of its Sexual Harassment Action Plan in 2022, and the celebration of the achievements of women in the profession via the establishment of the Honourable Dr Robyn Layton AO KC Award.

Since 2011, the Association has also focused on identifying, sourcing and offering continuing professional development opportunities for its members, with recent sessions addressing advocacy in and out of the courtroom, witness preparation, taking a preventative approach to bullying and discrimination, and tax and super tips for women in law.

Early career lawyer Courtney Chow, a senior associate at LK Law and co-chair of a WLASA subcommittee, said she had been “very fortunate” to not have experienced gender discrimination in her own workplace.

Regardless, Chow still saw a need for the Association decades into the future.

“Even in the work that [WLASA] are doing year to year … there’s always still so much more work that can be done.

“Looking ahead 20 to 40 years, I think it’s important to still have a peak body that engages with and for the interests of women in the legal profession.”

Marissa Mackie is the president-elect of the Law Society of South Australia and is on the Women Lawyers’ Committee.


13 March 2024


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