Women barristers: please apply to be QCs
Just as it did last year, 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 13 February and will be open for another two weeks, closing on 13 March.
This issue of LawTalk features a series of relevant information and statistics about the profession in New Zealand. It is entitled Snapshot of the Profession.
This shows a massive under representation of women who have taken silk exists at the moment. Just 18% of Queen’s Counsel are women. Yet women make up 47% of all practising lawyers and 36% of barristers.
Last year 14 new Queen’s Counsel were appointed. Of these 4, or 28.6% were women. That helped lift the percentage of women silks from 15% to 18%.
These figures also compare favourably with 2013, when 26 new Queen’s Counsel were appointed. Just four, or 15.4%, of these were women.
Whether it was the call by the Law Society encouraging women to apply for appointment as Queen’s Counsel, a similar call by the Attorney-General Chris Finlayson, or some other factor, this increase is very pleasing.
If we look at the proportion of women who practise as barristers, we see that it is almost exactly double the number of women who have taken silk.
One very important factor the Wellington Women in Law Committee has identified that explains – at least in part – why we have so few women QCs is that much fewer women apply for the rank.
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 practise in firms rather than as barristers.
Another reason could be that the task of applying is daunting, involving strict criteria and the need for impressive referees. Also women often have an acute fear of failure. Women may need more encouragement to put themselves forward simply because they don’t think they’ll measure up and may also need more support to fulfil the criteria. There is also only a small pool of women who have gained the necessary experience in litigation to draw from. The profession needs to seriously look at giving women more opportunities to gain that experience in high level litigation roles, so that in turn, they will gain the experience necessary to qualify for QC status.
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.
Whatever the reasons why we have so few women QCs, there are some very important reasons why we should have more.
One is that this is an access to justice issue.
In fact it is not just gender balance, but diversity generally that is an important component of access to justice. It is important because diversity brings with it a trend of people being more in tune with the community and its needs and aspirations. People in significant roles who come from groups that have traditionally been disadvantaged are also statistically more likely to reach out and to take affirmative action.
What we at the Law Society would like to see is a quantum increase in the number of women visiting the Crown Law website, www.crownlaw.govt.nz/artman/docs/cat_index_6.asp, checking the details of the application process for Queen’s Counsel, and then filling out the application form, which is on the website.
As we said last year: women barristers – “please apply to become a QC”.