OVERCOMING A 'POISONOUS CULTURE' WITHIN THE LEGAL PROFESSION
Written on the 13 March 2015 by Jenna Rathbone
JUSTICE Margaret McMurdo says while we have reason to celebrate, there is still reason to commiserate when it comes to gender equality and female representation in the legal profession.
This follows research undertaken by the Law Council of Australia which suggests a significant proportion of females in the industry experience some form of discrimination while at work.
One in two women who have experienced discrimination reported being bullied or intimidated, while 24 per cent of women had been sexually harassed compared to 8 per cent of men.
"These findings are confronting. It is shocking to learn that a profession whose primary concern is with rights, actually bullies, intimidates, harasses and discriminates against its own members," says McMurdo.
Although for decades women have entered the legal profession at equal or higher rates to men and represent 46 per cent of the practicing profession, they hold only 19 per cent of senior positions in law firms.
Within the Australian bar population only 19 per cent are women and the Queens Council and Senior Council have only 6 per cent women.
In addition, the NSW Law Society progress report on advancement of women in the profession, notes that the average income of first-year solicitors in private practice in 2012 was $71,500 for men and $66,200 for women.
The average income over all ages was $144,100 for male solicitors compared to $113,600 for women solicitors.
McMurdo says that the position in Queensland reflects the national trend, and for many years she has also kept statistics on the number of appearances of female counsel in matters before the Court of Appeal in Queensland.
She says this financial year is proving to be a success with more women represented at the bar.
"So far this financial year, that percentage is 13.9 per cent barristers appearing include both of those in private practice and those employed in the Director of Public Prosecutions (Commonwealth and State), and Legal Aid Queensland," she says.
"It is an improvement on the 2005/06 financial year when women appeared in only 5.4 per cent of Queensland Court of Appeal matters.
"I am also proud to announce that in the Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court of Queensland which I preside, the highest court in the State, 50 per cent of the judges are women."
McMurdo says it seems that the position of women in law is improving and it should continue to improve because lawyers, together with an independent judiciary, play an institutional role in a democracy such as Queensland's.
"Lawyers have a duty to protect and pursue their clients' rights under the rule of law, unswayed by the power, privilege or wealth of others and subject only to their duties to the court," she says.
"This sometimes means appearing for the most unpopular and despised members of society.
"Ensuring access to the rule of law for all, even unpopular litigants, strengthens our democratic institutions and the community they serve."
McMurdo says lawyers play a critical role in ensuring the separation of powers between the three branches of government is maintained and, in particular, that the judiciary is independent of both the legislature and the executive.
"Barristers, as specialised legal advocates, are particularly well placed to take on this institutional democratic role," she says.
"That is why if women are to attain equality and fully embrace their democratic rights, they should be represented approximately equal with men in the legal profession generally, at the bar and in all three branches of government, including the judiciary."
In front of a room full of hopeful law students, McMurdo praised the new Labor Government on three Queensland "milestones" Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk leading her party to an election win from opposition, the constitution of Premier Palaszczuk's Cabinet by a majority of women and the appointment of the first Indigenous woman to Cabinet.
McMurdo says there is currently a growing focus to ensure better rates of retention of women lawyers and for more women to assume senior positions in solicitor firms, on the bar and on the bench.
"Strong representation of women at all levels enhances the strength and credibility of the profession generally and ultimately the community's confidence in the profession," says McMurdo.
"A legal profession where women, whether solicitors or barristers, apprehend they belong, know their contributions are valued, and receive equal pay for equal work, will allow them to give their best intellectually and for the long term to the benefit of the profession and the community it serves."
McMurdo ended her evening by encouraging the youth to ensure "this poisonous culture is changed forever" by females taking on leadership roles in the profession and ensuring equal pay.
Picture right - McMurdo with Bond University Law students
Author: Jenna Rathbone
About: Jenna Rathbone is a Queensland-based journalist who writes on a range of issues including business and property affairs and social issues.Connect via: Twitter