I had the pleasure last week of being a panellist at the annual University of Newcastle Law Students Association (UNLSA) Women in Law event. Also on the panel were Newcastle barrister and public defender Lizzie McLaughlin and Rhanee Rego, solicitor and casual lecturer/PhD candidate at the UON Law School.
I’m always happy to give my time to this event when I’ve been asked in the past. I like to be able to provide some personal and professional insights into what I’ve found helpful for the next generation of female lawyers.
It was – yet again – another great event, and there were many challenging questions and discussion points. Here are some of them.
Is it critical to work in a legal environment when studying in order to get work as a lawyer upon the completion of a law degree?
No not critical but it’s certainly helpful. It has to be said though that there are limited opportunities in Newcastle. The UON Professional program does provide opportunities through the excellent legal clinic. There are also occasional openings in private firms. Here at Catherine Henry Lawyers, we offer positions to students working as paralegals. Some of those paralegals have gone on to work as solicitors at the firm.
Any advice about a career at the bar in Newcastle?
Both Lizzie and I both were very much of the view that if you’re interested in a career at the bar in Newcastle that it’s important to have first worked as a solicitor. Solicitors in Newcastle don’t tend to brief barristers who haven’t first worked as a solicitor. In Sydney, floor clerks and other barristers can give more junior barristers work, but it is certainly still advisable to work first as a solicitor.
What about becoming a partner in a firm?
I don’t think partnership in a private law firm should be seen as the holy grail – it’s not for everyone! You can certainly have a very satisfying career as an employed solicitor in private practice, and there are many other roles outside the law that lend themselves to someone with a law degree. The important thing is that you are in control of the career path you take.
However, if a partnership is something you aspire to, my advice is that you’ll need to demonstrate that you can attract work and develop a practice (as opposed to being given work by other lawyers). So my hot tip is to write, write, write! Get known by writing content in your area of practice – hopefully, you will find work in an area of the law that challenges you.
For those who find work in Newcastle, I also recommend developing relationships in the local legal community – with colleagues who can support or mentor you. Having worked for lengthy periods in both Sydney and Newcastle, I can confidently say that Newcastle has a very collegiate legal profession. We have a very active regional law society here in Newcastle and also a local chapter of the Women Lawyers’ Association of NSW, both of which encourage student memberships.
Why do we need women to be decision makers in law – either partners of law firms or women practicing on their own account as barristers?
We need diversity and equality in all professions and decision makers who are both men and women. Judges and politicians are often chosen from the legal profession, and we need women to be able to have that pathway available to them.
I believe in and support affirmative action programs, and it’s good to see that the peak organisation – the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) – has very recently launched a gender equality policy. This new policy articulates the ALA’s commitment to implement practical initiatives to address gender inequality – such as promoting a code of conduct calling out discriminatory and abusive conduct and a commitment to membership and participation quotas.
The ALA policy also strongly encourages lawyer members to adopt the Law Council of Australia’s Equitable Briefing Policy. At the ALA national conference which I attended last year as a speaker, I was surprised – but proud – to learn that my firm was one of the few plaintiff law firms to have formally adopted this policy.
How can we assist women lawyers who’ve taken time out of the workforce for family reasons to continue on in legal practice?
Some of those in the audience at this event were concerned about job prospects as an older lawyer. When recruiting, I always look further than the person’s continuity as a solicitor based on their CV. Life experience and maturity often make for a more empathetic lawyer and a better ‘bedside manner’.
My firm has always provided workplace flexibility and part-time/job share positions. Providing those options for men too plays a role in the equitable sharing of family responsibilities.
How can we improve the very low numbers of Indigenous lawyers?
The fact that we haven’t seen the very low numbers of Indigenous lawyers improve in recent decades is really concerning. I believe the key to boosting the number of Indigenous lawyers is to promote opportunities for Indigenous students in our law courses. If we work on increasing the numbers of Indigenous individuals studying law through structural programs – such as the pathways we have at the University of Newcastle and UNSW – then we will have higher numbers of Indigenous graduates, and more legal role models for other Indigenous people.
How can we ensure a safe working environment – free of harassment – for all employees, especially women?
As I’ve already said, we need to publicly say what is and isn’t acceptable conduct in the workplace. Every organisation – including all law firms- need to have a readily accessible and transparent policy.
In the workplace, men and women need to call out inappropriate behaviour and offensive jokes. And women need to be especially vigilant in supporting other women.
Last year I published an article in the Newcastle Herald on International Women’s Day, you can access it here.
Hopefully, some of this resonates with you. I am always happy to be contacted for help and assistance or to continue the discussion. Contact me here.