The number of women practicing in NSW has reached 46% of the profession, up 452% since 1988.
According to the NSW Law Society there are now a little more than 11,000 female solicitors practicing law in the state. “However, despite this rapid equalisation in the male to female ratio, it’s important to point out that change has been slower to reach the rank of partners and principals,” Law Society President Stuart Westgarth said.
Law Society statistics show that in 2010, women comprised 23% of principals in law firms with more than 20 partners, up from 18.5 % in 2005; and in firms with between two to 20 partners, 17.6% were women, up from 12.7% in 2005. A survey by News Limited last year found Gilbert + Tobin to have the highest number of female equity partners with 37% of the 54 equity partners being female. Blake Dawson cam in second with 23.7% while mid-tier firm Sparke Helmore came in third on 23%.
Westgarth, who is a partner at HWL Ebsworth and a former managing partner at Corrs Chambers Westgarth, took over the role of NSW Law Society president at the start of this year and has bold ambitions to reaffirm the society’s role as a ‘thought leader’.
Westgarth said in the coming months, the society will be looking at the factors impacting on the advancement of women to senior positions in the legal profession. “The Law Society is in a unique position to play a role in promoting discussion on this issue, highlighting success stories and accelerating change,” he said. “We want to build on this and have set ourselves the task of identifying any remaining impediments or disincentives to the advancement of women in the profession.”
Westgarth said changes in the profession are making the practice of law more diverse and more flexible, particularly the move away from a full-time, five-day work week. In 2010, 15% of the profession worked part time, up from 9% in 2003, according to the statistics. “Working part time is still more popular amongst women with 21% of female practitioners reporting working part time, compared to 10% of males,” said Westgarth. “My view is that flexible working will continue to expand, particularly as we see communication technology become cheaper, quicker and more accessible.”
Access to the internet and emails via mobile phones and laptops has been cited as the main contributing factor in achieving work-life balance in the legal profession. However, although there is greater flexibility and the average working week has dropped from 51 hours per week to 48 hours per week in the past decade, there is an underlying concern about the profession’s inability to “switch off” when not at work. “We don’t know is how much time solicitors spend taking phone calls and checking emails before and after work, or on the weekend,” Westgarth stated.