Women lead men as solicitors in WA for first time, new report shows

Adrian LoweThe West Australian
Perth solicitors, from left, Isabel Inkster, Dora van der Westhuyzen, Demi Swain, Lea Hiltenkamp and Briony Whyte.
Camera IconPerth solicitors, from left, Isabel Inkster, Dora van der Westhuyzen, Demi Swain, Lea Hiltenkamp and Briony Whyte. Credit: Michael Wilson/The West Australian, Michael Wilson

For the first time, women outnumber men as solicitors in WA, though industry leaders say true gender equity is still some way off.

The number of women working as solicitors has surged 72 per cent since 2011, the latest National Profile of Solicitors report shows, and women comprise 3100 of the nearly 6000 in WA. The number of men has risen just 27 per cent in the same period.

The legal industry is also growing, with the number of WA law practices surging 11 per cent in two years and solicitor numbers climbing 5 per cent between 2018 and last year. There are now 3103 female solicitors, or 52 per cent of the State’s workforce, compared to a 50-50 split in 2018.

Law Society of WA president Jocelyne Boujos said though it was clear progress was bring made, career progression challenges were “massive”.

The report showed 45 per cent of male solicitors had been admitted more than 15 years compared to just 26 per cent of women. In tenures less than 15 years, women lead men. A total of 10 per cent of the State’s female solicitors have been admitted less than a year.

“I actually see change and I see the change coming greatly from the COVID-imposed work environment,” Ms Boujos said. “There are plenty of people in the legal profession who want to go back and it’s not going to happen. It’s really not going to happen.”

The other change, she said, was an emerging focus on culture. “We’ve always got room to improve and we will do that as values change, but I see a clearer and encouraging focus on family life, an acceptance on that dual income families are what our culture is and we place a high value on our family care.

“I used to hide my children when I started out. I am bursting with delight that I see this is not the case any more. Technology has enabled the flexible workplace, plus there is hard evidence that when law firms adopt these policies, there is greater retention of female staff.”

Demi Swain, of corporate and commercial firm Bennett + Co, is deputy chair of the Law Society’s young lawyers committee. She began as a clerk in 2015 and was admitted to practice three years later.

She said even in her relatively short time in the industry she had seen change in the profession’s cultural landscape, though warned much more still needed to be done.

“Young women in the law want what every young professional wants: a safe, educational and inspiring workplace that looks beyond gender, race and ethnicity and is in effect a true meritocracy,” she said.

“Firms must adapt to changing nature of work and as young people, particularly women, strive for greater balance.

“Young women lawyers are entitled to expect they advance in their careers and that they can meaningfully contribute at the highest level whilst maintaining families and other priorities in their lives.”

The WA Bar Association adopted an equitable briefing policy in 2017. Ms Boujos said it was important to note nationally 27 per cent of briefs went to female barristers because of government and company equitable briefing policies, but they only received 20 per cent of the briefing fee value.

“There is no reason for that,” she said. “I look back, and honestly I’m disappointed in the progression because in the ’80s it looked like we could go ahead, we were smashing ceilings. But I now see change, whereas for a long time I couldn’t see change or a pathway.”

Ms Boujos said it was vital the Bar’s gender imbalance was fixed given it was from those ranks future judges were chosen.

“They uphold and they’re responsible for the administration of justice in the community,” she said. “We have reached a tipping point where women are obtaining leadership positions in firms and in the courts. I see that as where progression will occur.

“I’m happy for the profession to be representative but where my original disappointment comes from is the progress of leadership.”

She said given the law’s power in society, the progress of women in the law represented a benchmark of progress in our culture.

Ms Swain said despite the challenges and law’s high-pressure environments, she would encourage girls and young women thinking of a legal career to “stand up and speak up for what they think is right”.

“Guard your reputation,” she said. “Everyone makes mistakes but it’s how you deal with the mistakes that counts.”

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