Since the early 1990's, the number of female law graduates has exceeded that of their male counterparts. In 2021, 71.8% of new admissions to the profession were women, which is a vast increase from the 26.3% admitted in 1980. However, while women are well represented at the point of entry into the profession, particularly in comparison to other professions, the same cannot be said for more senior ranks.
Women are severely underrepresented in senior legal roles in the legal profession. Over 70% of law graduates and just over half of the legal profession is female. Yet, while more than half of the lawyers who work in law firms with more than one practitioner are women, they make up only a third of partners or directors in those firms. Although around 60% of in-house lawyers are women, that proportion is not reflected in leadership roles in corporate and government legal teams. More than 40% of barristers are women, yet they make up 23% of King's Counsels.
In an AUT study commissioned by the Auckland Women Lawyers' Association'Women's Career Progression in Auckland Law Firms: Views from the top, views from below' 86% of the female respondents reported that they perceived barriers to their progression within their current firm. There was a notable difference between male and female perceptions of promotion opportunities within their current firms. 40% of male respondents perceived moderate levels of promotion opportunities for themselves compared to only 20% of female respondents. In fact, 23.8% of female respondents perceived no promotion opportunities at all.
Research carried out in 2016 by law graduate Josh Pemberton found that new woman lawyers also felt that it was more difficult for women than men to progress in the law. A survey of 531 women lawyers in their first five years of practice found that 354 - 67% - felt that their gender had a bearing on their prospects or future in the legal profession. (First Steps: The experiences and retention of New Zealand's junior lawyers).
In addition to barriers to career progression, the profession also faces a real problem with retention. Women leave the profession at a rate 3-4% higher than men and variance begins early with 2-3% more women than men who are admitted but never enter legal practice. In the AUT study 95% of women respondents agreed that there was a trend for women to leave firms or the profession.
Results from the 2021 survey of Gender Equality Charter signatories show that the higher number of female lawyers is reflected in the ratio of men to women at all post-qualifying experience (PQE) levels up to 20 years. Up to 15 years’ PQE, there are approximately 1.5 times as many female lawyers as there are male, with this gap reducing closer to an equal ratio at 15-19 years’ PQE. The survey shows that there is a significant and progressive drop in the proportion of women lawyers from the 15-year PQE plus mark onwards.
The survey showed that only 36% of senior legal roles were held by women in 2021. The proportion of women in the General Counsel/ Chief Legal Advisor role is higher, at 58%, and the percentage of women salaried partners in the survey was just over 50% in 2021. Women made up 47% of directors. However, it remains the case that only around a third of equity partners are women.
This demonstrates some progress, but highlights the continued need for work on this issue if the profession is to keep its more experienced women lawyers and see them advance to the most senior levels.
It will also require continued work on changing the culture within the profession. The under-representation of women in senior legal positions is a real concern for the profession at large and supporting the advancement and retention of women lawyers remains a key focus for the New Zealand Law Society.