Since the early 1990's, the number of female law graduates has exceeded that of their male counterparts. In 2013, 61.8% 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 60% of law graduates and just over half of the legal profession is female. Yet, while women make up 61% of lawyers who work in law firms with more than one practitioner, they make up less than 31% 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. And only 26 out of 110 Queens Counsel appointed since 2002 are women. The hourly charge out rate for women is lower than males by an average of 7% to 10% in all sizes of firm and virtually all areas of the country.
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.
It will also require a significant culture shift. 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 is a focus for the New Zealand Law Society.