Bond University Women in Law Event

Wednesday 1 March 2017, Basil Sellers Theatre, Bond University

President’s address

Good evening. It is a pleasure to be here with you tonight and particularly among so many of Queensland’s professional women.

We are fortunate to be in a position where we can affect change in our profession and lead other women through their journeys. Whilst we may not be the original trailblazers, we are leaders in a time of great change and advancement.

I count myself very fortunate to be amongst you, not only as a leader in my area of practice, but also as the fifth female president in Queensland Law Society’s 89-year history.

I also have a special affinity with the Gold Coast, having practised here for over 20 years. The Gold Coast is the fastest growing regional area of legal practice and currently has the highest number of lawyers outside Brisbane City.

Many of you in this room are our future leaders but, in looking toward our future, we must reflect upon our past and the distance we have travelled.

It has been a long road for women lawyers in Queensland since the admission of Agnes McWhinney in 1915.

It was only 10 years earlier, in 1905 that the Queensland Act recognising a woman’s legal status to practise was passed.

In 1915 she was the only lawyer in Queensland. In 2017 there are nearly 5000!

We celebrated 100 years of females in the profession in 2015.

At the time of Agnes McWhinney’s admission, Chief Justice Pope Cooper was not impressed with the idea of a woman entering the legal profession, but was unable to fault her qualifications or conduct.

Although Agnes undertook work of the same complexity and importance as that of her colleagues, she was paid the same as the unqualified office boy. Agnes did not stand for this and her persistent protests resulted in her wage rising to 3 pounds 10 shillings per week. This equates to around $300 a week in today’s market – which is of course extremely low pay.

Agnes continued to practise as a solicitor with the firm until 1919 when she decided to marry. She then used her skills in community service.

Unfortunately, Agnes died in 1985 without enjoying the recognition she deserved as a pioneer for women lawyers in Queensland.

To keep her legacy alive, each year Queensland Law Society commemorates Agnes with the Agnes McWhinney Award, recognising outstanding professional and community contributions from a female practitioner in Queensland.

Queensland women have definitely come a long way since then, not only by gaining more respect as professionals, but also by coming closer each year to gender parity in the legal profession. In 2017, 49.3% of Queensland practising solicitors are women.

In previous years, we have also seen vast jumps in gender balance, with 2000 being the first year where more females were admitted than males. Prior to that, 1983 was the first year that 25% of admitted practitioners were females.

Our largest percentage of females is within our early career lawyer and career builder groups – those with 0-10 years’ post admission experience. These two groups hold 62.1% of females and 60.4% respectively.

We continue to strive for gender parity and inclusion through our work in the QLS flexibility working group which explores flexible work arrangements in the profession, provides tools and support for those considering flexible work arrangements and encourages and empowers employees to open a dialogue at their work place.

Our monthly magazine Proctor has also published many stories of our member’s real experiences with flexibility in the workplace.

The Society has also created the Modern Advocate Lecture Series aimed at our junior colleagues. This Series focuses on fostering collegiality in the legal profession and promoting engagement between solicitors and barristers. The series features talks from leading lights in our profession and deals with advocacy issues relevant to the junior profession with a particular focus on female professionals. It is our aim that this Series will help to address briefing inequities that currently limit the progress of female barristers. The Society has been fortunate enough to have Chief Justice Catherine Holmes and Land Court President Fleur Kingham deliver the first two lectures. I look forward to welcoming more female leaders of the profession to deliver future lectures.

Our Equalising Opportunities in the Law Committee continues to manage the QLS Equity and Diversity Awards which recognise small, medium and large law firms who encourage diversity in their workplace.

Winners last year included firms who support flexible work practices and women returning to the workplace following parental leave.

Most recently however, I was extremely pleased to bestow the President’s Medal to distinguished solicitor and QLS’ youngest president in 2007, Megan Mahon. Presented at the premier Legal Profession Dinner and Awards night, this award recognised Megan’s service and leadership to the solicitor’s branch of the legal profession.

It’s also important to note that the winner of our inaugural Innovation in Law award was given to Sarah Roach – co-founder (with Michelle Kerrisk) of Helix Legal, a law firm focused on new ways of doing business. In a profession that is still coming to terms with how to best manage its role in the future, I am very proud that women are leading the way.

QLS has also put in place a domestic leave policy for staff, and has a firm parental leave policy. Recently, our managers undertook a three-hour workshop with our LawCare provider on how to manage domestic violence matters in the workplace.

We are also hoping to join the other five legal organisations in the country to be accredited as a breastfeeding-friendly workplace. We would then be the first Law Society in Australia to be accredited. We currently have a baby room available for staff with young children. We also encourage staff with children – including those on parental leave – to join us for morning tea on a quarterly basis. This ensures that they remain connected to their colleagues.

We also have a parental leave 101 interactive guide for staff, a Parent’s Club page on our internal social network and discounted childcare options available for QLS members and staff through our Member Rewards Program.

The Society is also committed to hiring the best people for each role without prejudice. This has included having a number of staff currently on paternity leave, and also hiring new staff with the awareness that they will be on paternity leave within the first year of their employment.

We also spearheaded the creation of Domestic and Family Violence Guidelines for lawyers as a result of the Not Now, Not Ever Report.

As the peak professional body in our State for solicitors, QLS leads the way in advancing the interests of women professionals.

I firmly believe that we must lead by example not by vocal calls to arms. As a leader, I am focused on leading the way and refraining from telling people what to do. People follow behaviour not slogans.

There is a difference between equality and equity. “We are enriched by our reciprocate differences ” so said Paul Valery French poet and philosopher. The legal profession is known for its conservatism. A conservatism that envelops its thinking, conduct and attitude. Active diversity is so important in modern society.

QLS has been at the forefront of gender diversity for years. To demonstrate this, we have seen a 7.1% increase of female full members in the last financial year. 48.3% of full members are now females.

The presence of women in our profession and even at the Society is increasing. For example, 76% of QLS’ staff are women and our Executive Leadership Team is at 37.5%, including a female corporate secretary.

Our Council are made up of 54% females, and I am the first female president in four years and only the fifth in the Society’s history.

Our first female president was Elizabeth Nosworthy 1986-7, followed by Julie-Anne Schafer 1995-96, Megan Mahon in 2007-08 and Annette Bradfield in 2013 (when terms changed to calendar year.)

Our policy committee chairs, deputy chairs and members have a way to go in reaching gender parity – 26% of our chairs and deputy chairs are female and 36.6% of members are female. This appears to be representative of profession trends in the Builder, Baby Boomer and X Generations where males are the predominant gender.

Our membership committees fare well with one of our committees dedicated to early career lawyers – a group with a high percentage of women. Our membership committees boast near gender parity with 47% female membership.

All of this has been achieved without quotas – through commitment not compliance. We have only been able to achieve this increase in gender parity through leadership, action and practical steps to redress what have been significant imbalances in the past.

There is always more to be done and QLS will continue to strive for gender parity in our profession.

What does the future of our profession look like? Well I think it’s safe to say we will likely see a larger percentage of women not only in the profession but also staying in the profession longer.

I believe that one of the keys to ensure gender parity is through mentoring. I have personally been a mentor for more than 17 years, and am a big supporter of the advancement of women.

Early on in my career I partook in volunteer work at Domestic Violence Southport and was a long-standing mentor for the Smith Family Learning for Life program.

I have also been a mentor with the QUT mentoring program for more than 12 years and engaged with the WLAQ’s Ladder programme. I have seen my mentees reach great heights in their careers – of which I have been immensely proud.

I am a strong supporter of work experience for students and early career lawyers, as well as a proponent of assisting them with networking opportunities.

This is essential to a successful professional legal career and I urge you – where you can – to attend QLS CPD events and social functions to meet and connect with colleagues, further your knowledge and grow your support base.

Not only are mentoring and education essential to our profession, but it also integral that we keep up with technological advancements and what they mean for our profession.

We are living in the age of technology where advancements move at what seems like the speed of light!

In the words of John F Kennedy “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.”

We have come a long way since the first super computer, the ENIAC [1] in 1946.

It cost around $487,000, which equates to around $6,816,000 today.  It weighed approximately 27 tons and was about 2.4m x .9x 30 metres.

When I first entered the work force, telex machines and DOS computers were the height of technology.

These days we have personal computers, laptops, portable tablets and smartphones that can fit into our pocket or handbag costing just a few hundred dollars (the phone that is).

We also have smart watches where you can wear your phone as an accessory and see calls, messages etc by the flick of your wrist.

We can connect with each other at the mere touch of a button.

You would already see the ways in which technology is utilised in everyday life and in business and expanding the traditional definition of an office.

It allows lawyers to effortlessly and seamlessly connect with clients in ways that in my earlier days of practice we simply did not imagine. A bit like the driverless car – it was a product of mere fantasy and a lifetime away from fact. 

Of course, it is crucial for the legal profession and the administration of justice for lawyers to become more tech savvy. But, in the words of Pablo Picasso: “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”

While technical skill is now essential, the true value of a lawyer is in being a trusted advisor. Our role is to be the human face to the human problems our clients present us. It is one of the great benefits of representing clients – the people you serve are the people in your local community; the school teacher, the barber, baker, butcher, business person.

Getting legal information from the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant. While technology improves our ability to deliver services to clients, it is our ability to synthesise and apply that information in a way suitable to the people we serve is what distinguishes us.

As technology advances, I am sure that we will come across many more hurdles and opportunities to better serve our clients and also strive for that elusive work/life balance.

I encourage you to strive for excellence, continue your pursuit for knowledge and never be afraid to speak out and advocate for the rule of law.

We are on an excellent trajectory as we see more women lawyers enter the profession and progress whether that be as partners of law firms, heads of the judiciary, Attorney-General, Premier, Prime Minister and leaders in their field in specialist accreditation.

The solicitor’s branch of the legal profession is going from strength to strength and I look forward to seeing where our profession is in 5, 10 or even 20 years from now.

[1] Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer