Senior women lawyers ‘critical for survival of the profession‘

The New Zealand Law Society has released a voluntary Gender Equality Charter to tackle the under-representation of women in senior firm positions.

Photo: 123rf

Current Law Society figures show in the biggest 14 New Zealand law firms, women make up just under 28 percent of partners.

In law firms with more than one practitioner women make up 61 percent of the employed lawyers but just 31 percent of partners and directors.

Of Queen‘s Counsel appointments since 1907, 273 have been men – 100 of whom are still in practice.

That‘s in comparison to 34 who are women, of whom 23 are still in practice

The Women‘s Advisory Panel was established by the Law Society and began working on the charter over a year ago.

The charter commits firms to implement unconscious bias training, conduct annual gender pay audits, actively work to increase gender equality and reporting progress to the Law Society every two years.

As well as the charter, there are guidelines to assist signatories and free online tools and resources on the Law Society‘s website to assist firms.

The charter is available to all of the legal profession: sole practitioners, law firms, barristers‘ chambers and in-house legal teams.

Women‘s Advisory Panel chair Chris Moore said it was important firms take action.

“There‘s a real risk to the profession – if you can‘t retain the very best women, then you‘re going to limit the ability of the profession to the perform.

“To me, it‘s actually quite critical for the survival of the profession,” he said.

A number of firms have already expressed interest in implementing the charter and Mr Moore expected more to implement the charter once it had been released.

Those firms which had expressed interest, had a genuine willingness to improve the current statistics, he said.

But improving the statistics was more than just signing a document, Mr Moore said.

“Simply signing up to the charter on its own, frankly, if that‘s all firms do, it‘s not going to take them anywhere – that‘s not going to cure the [lack of] progression of women in their firms and also won‘t assist new grads coming through and looking for firms which they think are going to support them.

“Mere signing up to it won‘t take them very far, and it‘s certainly not a ticking the box exercise.

“It‘s more about what those firms do once they‘ve signed up to the charter – it‘s all about the steps that they genuinely take … if firms think ‘oh look, we can sign up to this, it‘ll look good on our website‘ frankly, that‘s very much a temporary measure, I don‘t think it will take them very far.”

Law Society President Kathryn Beck said if legal workplaces were serious about balance and fairness for all lawyers, adopting the Gender Equality Charter could help achieve that.

“The charter doesn‘t weigh more towards women than men. It‘s about making commitments to bring equity to your workplace. It‘s about ensuring there is no discrimination, that all lawyers regardless of gender are given equal opportunities at work,” she said.

Ms Beck expects the Gender Equality Charter to have an impact on the recruitment process for law graduates.

“If I were a graduate, I‘d be looking for my first job somewhere that presents as a current, modern, fresh thinking and diverse workplace because that is what the next generation of lawyers wants. Being a signatory to the Charter will be a strong indication that you are that organisation,”

The Minister for Women, Julie Anne Genter, officially launched the Gender Equality Charter at Parliament at 12:30pm today.