Queensland Law Society

International Women’s Day Panel

Thursday 8 March 2018, Law Society House

President

Today is International Women’s Day – a day for celebrating women everywhere. But tonight, we celebrate women in the legal profession and what you have achieved.

It is a day of sharing stories and supporting the women in our profession.

The journey of our female solicitors began with Agnes McWhinney in 1915 – the first female solicitor in Queensland.

Only 10 years earlier, the Queensland Act recognising a woman’s legal status to practice was passed.

At this time, Chief Justice Pope Cooper was not impressed with the idea of a woman entering the legal profession, but was unable to fault Agnes’s 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.

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.

Agnes led the way for women in the profession, even though it took some time to see momentum build.

In the years 1955 and 1965 we saw no women admitted. Fast forward 30 years where just under 40% of those admitted were female, followed by 2000 when more than half of those admitted were women – appearing to be the first year we had more women admitted than men.

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

In recognition of Agnes’ contributions to our profession, we present the Agnes McWhinney Award each year.

This award recognises women in the legal profession who have made outstanding contributions both professionally and in the community.

We have come a long way – from only one practising female solicitor in 1915, to more than 5000 in 2018.

We also have nearly 60 women on the bench in Queensland, which is above a third of our judiciary in Queensland.

45% of those with a principal practising certificate are females.

The rising rates of women in the profession actually brought some media attention recently, when I revealed to a Mackay journalist that over 61% of lawyers in the Mackay region were women.

Lawyers in the Mackay area explained some of the reasons for staying in practice longer being that work-life balance in the area was positive, and many local firms were excellent at accommodating flexible work situations.

We are seeing this increase in our profession, as more firms allow parents to return to work with flexible arrangements.

We have covered some of these stories in our Proctor magazine in past articles titled ‘my flexibility story.’

Some of the lawyers we have featured noted up-to-date technology and procedures as key aspects of their arrangements.

Others listed support from the firm, excellent firm culture, being able to bring children into the office and moving to sole practice as other incentives to stay in the profession.

There are many things that firms can do to encourage those who want to continue their careers to stay in the workforce.

Allowing flexible hours, work from home arrangements and both maternity and paternity leave are just some options to assist great talent to stay in practice.

QLS presents awards each year to firms that employ equity and diversity practices, which include flexible work practices and accommodating lifestyle needs.

In closing, we should all remember that, as solicitors, we share a common duty in practise to uphold the rule of law, to act in the best interests of our clients, and to always act ethically.

These duties can be fulfilled while still being able to press for progress.

Ambition and drive is a great thing for all members of our profession.

We should encourage these traits and duties in our younger generations, and not let ‘ambition’ be seen as a negative characteristic.

Tonight we are fortunate to be joined by well-respected members of our profession, and I look forward to hearing their stories, insights and advice.

We can all learn something from their journey, regardless of what stage of our career we are currently in.

I thank our panellists – President Kingham, Councillor Chloe Kopilovic, Linda Ryle and Michele Sheehan, and chair Ann-Maree David – for being with us.

Thank you.