Women in law in Australia
At the beginning of the 20th Century, Australia was generally regarded by the world at large as a former colonial outpost filled with people with strange accents and unusual native animals.
In reality, Australian society was somewhat socially progressive for its time. It had an active suffragette movement responsible for obtaining equal parliamentary voting for women in 1902, prior to both Britain and the US. However, the legal profession was one of the most conservative of professions in Australia and it presented formidable barriers to entry for women. Whilst Ada Evans became the first Australian woman to graduate from an Australian University with a law degree in1902, the legal profession at that time was comprised entirely of men, most of whom came from the privileged social classes. The law protected its privileged male members by interpreting laws in relation to admission to practice as a lawyer in a way which denied entry to women. It was not until the end of the First World War that the Women’s Legal Status Act (1918) enabled women to become admitted to practice as lawyers in my home state of New South Wales (NSW).
Despite the relaxation of legal prohibitions to the entry of women, the social conditioning of both men and women continued to inhibit the career prospects of women lawyers between both World Wars. Few men were willing to article women (compulsory legal training with a master solicitor) and, in litigation, men were reluctant to brief women.
The few early women lawyers did not conform to the conventional expectations of their times and sought to carve careers for themselves. However, these women were subject to censure and prejudice. The first woman lawyer admitted to practice in NSW was Marie Byles who was admitted in 1924. After being rejected by numerous law firms, Marie was told she would be better off “thumping a typewriter”. She was eventually employed by Henry Davis, the founder of Henry Davis York, the firm that combined with Norton Rose Fulbright Australia in 2017.
1966 - Mahla Pearlman
It was not until the 1960’s that we saw an influx of women entering the legal profession in Australia, coinciding with the rise of the feminist movement. However, in relative terms the numbers were small. In 1968, only 8% of graduates at the University of Sydney were women and women represented only 5% of those admitted to practice law in NSW. The percentage of woman who were partners of law firms was even smaller.
One notable exception was Mahla Pearlman. Mahla became a partner of a firm in 1966. Mahla became one of a group of three women who became the first female partners of our predecessor firm in NSW. Mahla was born into a rural farming family and fell into law because she did not want to be a teacher. Mahla possessed a fine legal mind and excelled at the law. She was passionate about environment and planning law and was instrumental in establishing our firm’s practice in Australia as the pre-eminent environment & planning practice in Australia, a reputation it has maintained to the present day.
Mahla was elected President of the NSW Law Society and President of the Law Council of Australia, the first female to hold those positions. In 1992 she was appointed as a judge of the NSW Land and Environment Court, eventually becoming chief judge. She was the first woman to be appointed as chief judge of a court anywhere in NSW.
However, Mahla did not consider herself as a pioneer or as a role model for women. She said, “I don’t think of myself as a women lawyer. I think of myself as a lawyer, then I get on with it”. In some respects Mahla conformed to stereotypical views of the time as she did not marry or have children. Mahla addressed the partners in our Sydney office some years before passing away. In a time when paid parental leave and flexible work were still concepts unknown, she told us, “I don’t think I could have had my career these last 30 years if I had married.”
1998 - Alison Deitz
In the late 1980s, as Mahla Pearlman was retiring from the legal profession, I was entering it. I was from a generation of Australian women who were able to obtain access to a university education as a result of the Australian Government’s decision to abolish the payment of university fees. The abolition of the articled clerk system also made it easier for women to enter the profession as solicitors once they qualified.
However, I still faced subtle (and not so subtle) barriers to progression.
At the time of entering into the profession, most law firms expected women lawyers to leave once they had a family (it was a common and embarrassing interview question asked of me in my early years). Like most young lawyers, I often appeared in Court. In NSW Courts a sign would be placed on the bar table which said “Trousers not permitted to be worn by female solicitors or barristers”. One day I tired of such a ridiculous prohibition and shocked my male colleagues when I wore a fashionable and very expensive suit jacket and trousers. Unfortunately, I was sent to Court and was humiliated by the judge who refused to hear me. I had to run to a nearby department store and buy a skirt to enable me to appear. To this day, I usually wear trousers to the office in part as a measure of defiance against that early humiliation.
Women lawyers practising in the early years of my career often struggled to build client relationships. Male lawyers had the advantage of social connections through sporting activities, clubs and associations and, being Australian, drinking. Women lawyers were often deliberately excluded from these social encounters or were unable to enjoy them. These women lacked the social standing necessary to create lasting relationships with colleagues and clients. Fortunately, I had inherited a love for traditional Australian sports such as football and cricket from my father. In the formative years of my career this helped give me entry into male dominated social interactions.
Luck also played a part in the development of my career. As a young lawyer, I was given a handful of debt recovery files for an American owned finance company that no one else was interested in. I worked hard on those files. After a time the then Australian Treasurer deregulated the Australian banking market, and overnight that small finance company became Citibank, the world’s then largest bank. As Citibank became established in Australia, I was able to build my legal practice upon the early relationships I had developed. Decades on, our firm continues to act for Citibank in Australia.
There were a number of trailblazing female partners of my generation both inside and outside of our firm. One of these partners was Sharon Cook, who became the first female managing partner of Henry Davis York, the firm that combined with Norton Rose Fulbright Australia in 2017. However, the numbers of women to be appointed partners of law firms was still small. When I joined our firm as a partner in 1998, the percentage of female law graduates had risen to 57% but the percentage of partners at commercial law firms who were women was less than 7%.
Women of my generation who became partners all needed a combination of luck, resilience and perseverance to succeed. I was fortunate to have had the benefit of paid parental leave and the option of flexible work after I gave birth to my daughter.
I have always been proud to be a partner of a firm that has been at the forefront in advancing the cause of women in law. I have always believed that I have stood on the shoulders of those female partners who came before me, including our firm’s Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Sally Macindoe. I have been fortunate in my time at our firm to have been supported by some wonderful partners, both female and male.
I am so proud to have achieved the honour of being the first woman to be appointed Managing Partner of our firm in Australia. I am incredibly proud of the message it sends all of the women in our lives and particularly to girls like my own daughter.
I believe it is a reflection of the long and consistent focus our firm has had on ensuring that our partnership is diverse and inclusive. Whilst my appointment may be as the first woman in the role, my hope is that it will enable others to follow and that everything we have done and will continue to do when it comes to gender diversity will pave the way for our emerging and future generation of lawyers and leaders who are women.
2019 - Lisa Koch
One such woman is Lisa Koch. Lisa was a young lawyer in our firm in South Africa and London before she relocated to our Sydney office in 2018. She was appointed as a partner in 2019.
I asked Lisa what inspired her to progress her career. Lisa said, “I’ve always been driven to keep looking ahead at what’s next. When I started work in the firm’s Cape Town office as a ‘candidate attorney’ 5 of our intake of 8 were female, and there were a large number of female partners to inspire me, so I never questioned whether partnership was a possibility – I simply believed it was if I worked hard enough. Looking back now, as a new partner of the firm, I can easily point to the many dynamic and inspiring men and women, both within Norton Rose Fulbright and outside of it, who championed my professional and personal development, and motivated me to rise to challenges I faced along the way.
I asked Lisa for her view of the current challenges faced by lawyers who are women. Lisa said, “As a woman in law in 2020, I think the challenges I’ve faced, and observed, have been more subtle than those faced by the women who pioneered in this profession. One of the challenges I’ve observed is the ‘leaky pipeline’ – something which has gradually became more evident to me as I’ve progressed in my career. Whilst the barriers for women to entering law are low, the barriers to progression to senior levels become significantly higher as women juggle their personal and professional responsibilities. I’ve seen how agile working has been invaluable in giving women more autonomy to manage the competing demands on their time and attention. To take this progress further, I believe that flexible and agile working should be more strongly encouraged for men too. The norm that will allow us to challenge our deeply ingrained views of traditional gender roles at home, and what constitutes a ‘good worker’ who deserves a pay rise or a promotion at the office, will be both men and women working flexibly as their personal circumstances demand it. This would help foster a culture of shared responsibilities at home and at the office. It would also help to change any subconscious perceptions about flexible workers’ career ambitions and their willingness to work hard.
I asked Lisa what challenges has she faced as a partner. Lisa said, “In a context of always striving to do and be better, one of the biggest challenges I have faced is to learn to be kind to myself, to take care of myself. This is so important for women, who have a tendency to look after others, whether family or clients, before themselves. I have found that I am a better lawyer, a better colleague, a better wife and a better friend when I take some time to look after myself – read, bake, drink wine with friends, sleep in, eat well and (I’m still working on this one) get some exercise. Elizabeth Broderick AO, Australia’s longest serving Sex Discrimination Commissioner and a Special Rapporteur to the UN Human Rights Council on the issue of discrimination against women, described it so well when she said that being physically and mentally well is the ultimate act of defiance – and that is what women’s empowerment looks like.
As a mother of an independently-minded teenage girl, I also asked Lisa’s view on whether she thought women could “have it all today”? Lisa said in response,
Now expecting my first child, I have asked myself whether we, as women, can have it all. I believe the real question is, what does ‘have it all’ mean to me? I expect the answer will be different for each one of us. For me, asking this question has been an opportunity to reflect on my priorities and goals, and I have come away feeling motivated and excited about the journey of motherhood and partnership. There will always be setbacks, compromises and challenges, and I’m sure there will be many days when I don’t achieve the balance I would like to. But setbacks are not failures, compromises are not indications that we’re not achieving, and challenges are opportunities to strive for our goals. I’m looking forward to the next part of the adventure.“
Where to from here?
Having recently announced our new global gender diversity target of 40:40:20, a truly inclusive and meaningful target, it is timely to look back at quite how far we have come.
That only happened through considered effort and change, and so while we have more to do when it comes to gender equality we can and should be proud of what we have achieved so far and look forward to what we can achieve next.