The New Zealand Law Society is encouraging women barristers to apply for appointment as Queen’s Counsel. Applications for appointment as a QC opened on 14 February and will be open for another two weeks, closing on 14 March.
A massive under representation of women who have taken silk exists at the moment. Just 15% of Queen’s Counsel are women. Yet women make up 46% of all practising lawyers and 36% of barristers.
Last year, 26 new Queen’s Counsel were appointed – the most ever appointed in one round since New Zealand first began making the appointment in 1907. (An interesting fact is that last year’s appointments represent 10% of the 259 New Zealand lawyers who have been appointed Queen’s or King’s Counsel since 1907.)
Of the 2013 appointments, just four were women.
The Wellington branch Women in Law Committee wanted to know why so few women were appointed to the rank and why none were from Wellington.
So committee member Karen Feint made a request under the Official Information Act 1982 for details of the total number of applicants for the 2013 round, and the number of women who applied.
What the figures showed was that the percentage of women applicants (15.2%) was almost the same as the percentage of women appointed (15.4%).
We do not know all the reasons why so few women are applying to become Queen’s Counsel. There are many outstanding women lawyers who are leaders of the profession but have not taken the traditional career route to that rank. One possible explanation is that candidates in general can no longer be drawn from firms (but would be eligible under a special category for which application is not required and recognises extraordinary contributions to the law). This naturally excludes a wide range of very able women who practice in firms rather than as barristers. The Law Society is looking at these reasons, along with the wider question of the low representation of women in the higher levels of the senior ranks of the profession generally.
The Law Society is developing a series of initiatives aimed at enhancing the opportunities for the advancement of women in the profession.
One of these is to encourage women to put their names forward for appointment as Queen’s Counsel.
It was most heartening to hear the Attorney-General, Chris Finlayson, on radio recently saying more has to be done by women lawyer associations and the Law Society to encourage women to apply.
“I know how many fine lawyers there are out there,” Mr Finlayson said. “Those who apply – take silk, people like Kate Davenport, an excellent barrister in Auckland – these people are very, very good and they should be applying.”
Mr Finlayson said he had a message for female barristers ahead of this year’s round – please apply.
“People have to apply. And so what I’m going to do is meet with the women lawyers associations and the Law Society, and suggest that they concentrate on this issue because they have an obligation to do something.”
The Law Society’s Executive Director, Christine Grice, has welcomed Mr Finlayson’s call for more women to apply.
“Mr Finlayson’s calls are timely as the Law Society is developing a series of initiatives aimed at enhancing the opportunities for advancement of women in the legal profession,” Ms Grice says.
“The immediate issue is that women who might be good candidates are not putting themselves forward and this is a matter which we can look at in association with women lawyer groups and the New Zealand Bar Association,” she says. “We look forward to working with the Attorney-General, the Crown Law Office and other organisations.”
As the longest-serving member of the Wellington branch Women in Law Committee, I completely agree.
What we would like to see is a quantum increase in the number of women visiting the Crown Law website, checking the details of the application process for Queen’s Counsel, and then filling out the application form, which is on the website.
As the Attorney-General says: women barristers – “please apply”.