Immediate Past President of the Law Society of NSW and First 100 Years champion Pauline Wright delivered this speech at our launch event on 15 November 2017:
Just the beginning
I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet this evening – the Gadigal people of the Eora nation – and pay my respects to their elders, past and present. I also acknowledge their youth, in whose hands is held our nation’s hope for a truly reconciled future.
I also acknowledge our distinguished guests – Acting Justice Jane Mathews AO, Justice Julie Ward, Holly Lam, Anne McLeod and Prof Rosalind Croucher – and all of members present tonight of the NSW Women’s Lawyers Association, the Law Society and the Bar Association.
I was delighted and greatly honoured when the organising team asked me to give the keynote remarks at this exciting launch. And I’m all the more excited to be giving remarks tonight on this night in particular, when we are celebrating a victory for diversity and inclusion across our nation, with the announcement of the result of the postal survey on same-sex marriage. It was a decisive endorsement of marriage equality, with a sound majority of the population and a majority in every state and territory and in the vast majority of electorates across the nation.
As I approach the conclusion of my term as President of the Law Society of NSW, I look to 2018 with eagerness because of important milestones such as this.
On behalf of everyone involved in this initiative I would like to make some short thank yous to:
for all of their hard work in organising tonight’s event and in producing a great-looking website for this initiative
The First 100 years is a purpose-built initiative taking its cue from similar common law jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom.
This initiative is billed, very deliberately, as the first 100 years, because we are only just beginning!
We are marking the achievements of the past AND celebrating the bright future ahead for women lawyers in NSW.
Next year our profession will formally mark 100 years since the Women’s Legal Status Act (NSW) 1918 was passed into law in this state.
After decades of lobbying, women won the long overdue legal right to be formally recognised as “persons” enabling them to become lawyers and be elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly.
These are profound milestones. It is hard to imagine in the 21st century a time that these things were considered controversial; they represent a recognition that women are qualified to represent and advise others about their legal rights, and qualified to represent their community as members of parliament.
I am particularly grateful to have Anne McLeod here tonight. She will speak to you shortly about her book The Summit of Her Ambition: The Spirited Life of Marie Byles so we will be hearing much more about the example of Marie Byles, the first practising female solicitor in this state.
Joan O’Brien articulated well the plight of women in the nineteenth and early twentieth century in her Masters Thesis, A History of Women in the Legal Profession in NSW:
“Under the common law a woman’s status merged, on marriage, with that of her husband; she had little control over her own property and she was not the legal guardian of her own children.
Because the English courts had interpreted the common law to mean that a woman was not entitled to hold any public office, women’s activities were confined to those associated with the home. A married woman, with the exception of royalty, was at law incapable of exercising any public function.”
It is significant to reflect on the fact that although we commemorate 100 years since women were admitted as solicitors in NSW, the first woman to be appointed to full judicial office in this state is with us tonight – the Honourable Acting Justice Jane Mathews AO, whom we must honour for her support of this and so many other initiatives to advance women in our profession.
Although it is easy to feel that these are battles “long-won”, the “firsts” for NSW, in the light of history, are in relative terms very recent. The newness of these milestones should make us ever more determined to uphold them and take them to new chapters in our future history.
Even when I started practice as a solicitor there weren’t many women in the profession in NSW.
In fact, in 1985 when I was admitted, they made up just 15 per cent of the 8,300 solicitors practicing – or 1,245 female lawyers. Now we make up just over half of a great profession of more than 30,000.
In criminal law, which was my main area of practice, the number of women was even smaller – most women practised in family law or conveyancing.
When I started at Marsdens, I was the only woman lawyer in the firm. There had only been one before me. In fact, in the whole of the south-western Sydney region, there were only two women appearing in the criminal courts, and that was Chrissa Loukas (now SC) and I. There were no women senior to us.
I never apologised about being a woman. And I resolutely resisted conforming to the “blokey” persona.
So in 1985, there I was, a petite 23-year old, sitting behind my new desk awaiting my first client.
In came this great big bikie, Max was his name, at 6’5”, he walked in wearing nothing but jeans and a leather vest, tattooed from neck to wrists and from head to toe covered in spiky orange hair. He looked at me sitting behind my enormous desk. After a moment’s bemusement, he asked, “Are you the solicitor?”
“Yes”, I said.
He looked at me, and said “F…”, as he walked out the door.
I pulled myself up to my full 5’2” and called after him, “You come back here and give me a chance!”
Well, he did come back. And after our chat and a successful committal, his whole gang ended up instructing me for the next several years.
This taught me that “mentors”’ can be found in unlikely places. Max and his gang really did look out for me and taught me a lot.
As a lawyer, all kinds of people come to you with their day-to-day human problems, and they’re asking for your help.
You have to be able to anticipate what’s important to people and what might happen in people’s lives, no matter how simple or complex.
As lawyers we have to be flexible enough to see something from another person’s perspective.
I believe women bring this sort of human empathy – made possible by strong communication, listening and problem-solving skills – to the practice of law in strong measure. I don’t say that men don’t have this gift, indeed I’ve known many men with enormous empathy who practice in our profession, but perhaps it’s a trait that’s encouraged in women and therefore more common among us.
Tonight, we particularly uphold Marie Byles as a standard-bearer for the attitudes which ought to guide each and every firm in NSW.
Anne will be speaking more about this important female figure, but I think I can speak for the entire working committee when I say we have drawn interest and inspiration for this project in equal measure from this trailblazing, bushwalking, mould-breaking heroine of the law. I feel a particular connection to her – she also went to school at PLC in Pymble, and she established the precious Bouddi National Park on the Central Coast, near my home at Avoca Beach.
We uphold Marie Byles as an example of lawyer as advocate for justice, for the rule of law, and a fair go for all. All that time ago, she introduced flexible working hours for her employees.
As well as Byles, we look to exemplars like Ada Evans, the first law student to graduate in NSW, who took on the Supreme Court in her fight to be admitted as a solicitor-at-law. She was rebuffed, but she set a fire which would not stop burning until all women in Australia would be allowed to practise law.
We also celebrate Flos Greig.
Ada was the first woman to graduate with a Bachelor of Laws in this Country. When the Dean of the Sydney Law School discovered, upon his return from overseas, that the Law School had somehow admitted a woman into its ranks (!), he summoned Ada into his office and told her that her frame was “too light for law” and that she would likely find medicine more suitable. Ada graduated at a time when she was unable to be admitted to the practice of the law.
The first woman to be admitted to legal practice in Australia, her graduation prompting the Women’s Disabilities Removal Act 1903 in Victoria, Flos Greig was at the vanguard of “the graceful incoming of a revolution” as described by then Chief Justice Sir John Madden, as he presided over the ceremony granting her admission to the Victorian bar in August 1905.
The number of women in the profession has increased twelve-fold since my admission and, as I said, women now make up just over 50 per cent of our 30,000-strong profession of solicitors.
In 2011, the Law Society started its Advancement of Women project in recognition of the fact that although in terms of numbers women were approaching equality with men, they were still facing barriers in two key areas: career progression and retention, in addition to pay inequality. Addressing these challenges is the driving motivation of the Advancement of Women project in which the Law Society’s Mentoring program plays a key role.
The Advancement of Women Project’s latest chapter has been our Charter for the Advancement of Women in the Legal Profession, which has had sign-on by more than 140 law firms of all kinds, from small to large, as well as government agencies and in-house corporate practices.
The charter is a culture-shifting document designed to promote and support strategies to retain women in the profession over the course of their careers and encourage and promote their career progression into senior executive and management positions. And of course we would like to see more women appointed to the judiciary, whether from the Solicitors’ branch of the profession or from the Bar.
This year, in the Charter’s spirit, the Law Society held Equitable Briefing networking events, giving all our solicitors the opportunity to meet with experienced female counsel in their area of practice.
In concluding my speech this evening, I would like to read from our Mission Statement:
“We stand for History: It is only with a substantial comprehension of its history can one truly understand women and their place in the world. We don’t just laud the heroes, but share their stories, successes and failures.
We stand for Recognition: Without the trailblazers we celebrate, women simply would not be where they are today as regards work. We aim to give credit where credit’s due.
Finally, we stand for Justice: we are dedicated but not limited to women’s rights; we believe that incidences of birth such as sex, religion or race should never impact anyone’s role in the workplace.”
You are all a part of that mission, and I thank you for partnering with me and all of us here tonight as we start this journey for 2018.
This is an extract from a speech by Pauline Wright, 2017 Law Society President, at launch of the First 100 Years on 15 November 2017 at the Union, Sydney University and Schools Club.