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:
In 1985 when I was admitted,women 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.
The value of mentors
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.
The power of empathy
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.
The number of women in the profession has increased 12-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. It’s just the beginning.
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.
View the full version of Pauline’s speech here.