A new report published by the Law Society of NSW in July has shed new light on the emerging trends in and makeup of the Australian legal profession.
Data obtained by the Law Society of NSW’s annual National Profile of the Profession report shows, for the first time in history, that women solicitors outnumbered their male counterparts across Australia in 2018.
There are now more female than male lawyers both at a national level and across all states and territories, except Western Australia where the gender balance is 50-50.
The report reveals that women made up 52 per cent of solicitors across Australia in 2018 – with nearly 40,000 female solicitors compared to 36,500 males. This higher proportion reflects a substantial growth in the numbers of of new female lawyers entering the profession: the number of women practising law in Australia has increased by 49 per cent since 2011 – compared to 16 per cent growth for men.
However, the report also notes that both the proportion and number of Indigenous lawyers has dropped since 2011. Just 519 of the 76,303 practising solicitors in Australia (0.7 per cent) identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, representing a decrease from 1.2 per cent in 2016. This is despite Indigenous Australians forming 2.8 per cent of the Australian population.
“We have now undertaken four national demographic profiles on behalf of the national profession, and what we are now getting is some really strong legacy data that allows us to track trends over time,” CEO of the Law Society of NSW Michael Tidball said. “As with all history, it’s what you can observe in the past that allows you to build and plan for the future.”
Tidball said the National Profile data provided a “starting point” to address the lack of Indigenous representation in the profession.
“Developing plans and initiatives of itself does not move the data. We have done good work in trying to facilitate movement in the data, but the numbers show that we are not making the inroads we would like to,” he said.
“In recent weeks I have met with the Chair and Deputy Chair of the Indigenous Issues Committee to discuss this issue. We are planning new initiatives to set out in our Reconciliation Action Plan and the Law Society council will consider those at our July meeting this week.”
Despite female lawyers increasing in number and proportion since 2011, data from the Australian Financial Review’s 2019 Law Partnership Survey shows women continue to be underrepresented in leadership levels of the profession. Just 27 per cent of partners in large and medium-sized firms are women, according to that survey.
Tidball said the underrepresentation of women at the top tiers of the profession was a long-term challenge that the Law Society would continue to focus on.
“We continue to push for progress in that area, through the work we started on the Advancement of Women in 2011, our mentoring programs, our equitable briefing program and our constant engagement with large firms about best practice initiatives,” Tidball said.
“One thing I will say is that the data is very important. Unless you have good data and you are tracking it over time, you won’t be able to address the problem.”