Big corporates Telstra, Woolworths, Westpac and 11 top-tier law firms have signed an agreement to hire more female barristers to improve gender equity in the profession.
The law firms which include Allens, Herbert Smith Freehills, King & Wood Mallesons, Minter Ellison and Clayton Utz have made a commitment to boost the number of briefs given to female barristers.
The aim of the Law Council of Australia’s national equity policy is to ensure female barristers are briefed on at least 30 per cent of all matters and receive at least 30 per cent of the value of all briefs by 2020.
NSW Bar Association figures for 2015 show women represent less than 10 per cent of Senior Counsel members of the bar and less than a quarter of Junior Counsel. That is despite women accounting for more than half of graduates from NSW law schools and outperforming male students academically.
Law Council of Australia president-elect Fiona McLeod SC said the policy aims to support the progression and retention of women barristers, address the pay gap and the under representation of women in superior courts.
“The preparedness of the legal profession and the Australian business community to adopt the policy signals a significant cultural shift in our support for equality,” she said.
“The Law Council is grateful indeed for the leadership of the profession and these businesses in recognising the importance of diversity measures by signing up to this commitment.”
Ms McLeod said it was difficult juggling her own childcare commitments and having an uncertain income flow at the bar.
“Because you are briefed case to case, you have no ability to plan,” she said. “Having more financial security would have made that a lot easier.”
Senior vice president of the NSW Bar Association, Arthur Moses SC, said the bar aims to attract the best and brightest lawyers.
“The figures demonstrate that there are more women graduating from law school than men and consistently at the top of their class at university,” he said.
“However, it is true that the 2014 National Attrition and Re-engagement Study figures demonstrate that the bar is not attracting and retaining women at the same rate as men.
“The aim of the NSW bar is to improve these figures through a number of initiatives, including through the equitable briefing policy which was adopted by the Bar Council. These initiatives will assist in making the bar more conducive to recruiting, retaining and promoting women.”
Sue Gilchrist, Herbert Smith Freehills regional managing partner, Australia and Asia, said the firm welcomed the gender equity policy.
“As a firm, we are committed to addressing the gender gap and to increasing the number of briefs to female barristers. This policy is an important development to ensure the continued success of our talented female colleagues at the bar,” she said.
“For law firms, the fact that our clients and colleagues recognise the importance of gender diversity and communicate their expectations has a powerful impact.”
Sue Laver, General Counsel Dispute Resolution, Telstra, said there was no doubt the legal profession had changed and had become a more accurate reflection of society.
“But while we’re seeing more female law graduates than men, women remain under-represented in senior levels within the industry and at the bar,” she said.
“Telstra has been actively leading equitable briefing for many years now and has a strong record in this space. The profession, and society as a whole, benefits from giving men and women equal opportunities.”