By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim
Not only have the numbers working within the Australian legal profession continued to increase over the last decade to the point that they’ve reached an all-time high, but the sector – once the domain of men – now has a majority of women working within its ranks.
Released on 14 July, the 2020 Law Society National Profile report outlines that since 2011, there’s been a 45 percent increase in the number of solicitors working nationwide, with most of the growth occurring in the corporate and government legal sectors.
“In 2011, when the first national profile was published, women accounted for 46 percent of the nation’s 57,577 solicitors,” said Law Society of NSW chief executive Sonja Stewart in a press release.
“Women now make up 53 percent of all solicitors in Australia and, for the first time, female solicitors outnumber male solicitors in all states and territories.”
Research firm Urbis was commissioned by the NSW Law Society to prepare the profile on behalf of the Conference of Law Societies. The 2020 national profile marks the fifth such undertaking, which commenced in 2011, as well as having reported in 2014, 2016 and 2018.
The national snapshot also found that solicitors are increasingly choosing to work beyond 65 years of age, while the proportion of First Nations people working within the legal profession remains low.
Over the nine years to October 2020, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of solicitors with a practising certificate nationwide.
This has seen an extra 26,066 Australians join the profession, bringing the total number practising to 83,643.
NSW continues to be the state with the greatest number of practising solicitors accounting for 43 percent of those nationwide. This was followed by Victoria, which has a quarter of all solicitors, while next in line was Queensland with 16 percent.
While the majority – 67 percent – of solicitors continued to work within the private legal sector, most of the growth since 2011 has occurred within the corporate legal sector, which has seen an 82 percent rise, along with the government legal sector having grown by 88 percent.
The private legal sector has grown by 30 percent over the time the national profile has been taken. However, of late, there has been a drop in the number of private law practices, which sat at 16,393 last October, down from 16,435 in 2018.
Sisters are doing it
Most of the growth in the legal profession over the last nine years has been due to the number of women taking on the role of solicitor, with 53 percent of all practising solicitors across the country now being female practitioners.
This was a trend that was first noted in the 2018 national profile.
The latest research found that female solicitors now outnumber their male counterparts across all Australian states and territories, with this being particularly pronounced in the Northern Territory, with 61 percent women, and in the ACT, where women make up 60 percent of practising solicitors.
The shift in the number of women entering the profession compared to men is stark when you consider that over the nine years to October 2020, the growth rate in female solicitors has increased by 67 percent, while for men, the increase is much lower at 26 percent.
As it sat back in 2011, 54 percent of Australian practising solicitors were men. This shifted to both men and women making up an even 50 percent of the ranks in 2016, while women have dominated since 2018 – making up 52 percent that year – and by last October, this had increased to 53 percent.
In terms of differing legal sectors, women make up 68 percent of practising solicitors within the government sector, 60 percent in corporate legal, and they make up 71 percent of all solicitors within the community legal sector.
However, amongst private practices women only account for 48 percent of solicitors.
First Nations legals
As of October 2020, there were 632 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander practising solicitors nationwide, which only accounts for 0.8 percent of the total. This number has remained fairly stable since it began to be included in the national profile in 2014.
In terms of gender distribution, 55 percent of all First Nations solicitors are women.
The highest proportion of Indigenous legal practitioners occurs in the Northern Territory, where they account for 2 percent of the total, while in NSW, they make up 1 percent overall.
In a February 2021 speech on waning public trust in the judiciary, NSW Chief Justice Tom Bathurst stated that there is a noted distrust of magistrates and judges amongst First Nations populations, and this is in part caused by the role the judiciary plays in their overincarceration.
The state’s top judge suggested that this situation could be improved by more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people entering the legal profession, which would in turn lead to a greater trust in the institution of law.
The 2020 Law Society National Profile report also notes that since 2014, there has been a large increase in the number of solicitors choosing to work passed the age of 65. Over that time, solicitors nationwide working above the age of retirement has increased by 59 percent.
Although, this doesn’t mean the legal workforce is growing older, as this increase in 65 plus solicitors is being offset by a huge influx of younger lawyers.
Solicitors over the age of 65 only make up 7 percent of Australian practising solicitors.
And in October 2020, the mean age of Australian solicitors was 42 years old, which has remained fairly consistent over the study’s lifetime. Last year saw the mean age of a male Australian solicitor at 46 years old, while that of a female Australian solicitor was 39 years old.
Women in the judiciary
Going by the numbers collated by the Law Society of NSW and the trend that these reveal, it would be thought that going into the future the number of female solicitors in this country will continue to outstrip their male counterparts.
However, as yet, this increase in female solicitors hasn’t led to a majority of women within the judiciary.
Most magistrates and judges are appointed from amongst the ranks of barristers and solicitors who’ve worked within the profession for a number of years.
The Australian Institute of Judicial Administration indicates that on 30 June last year, there were 1,119 judicial officers nationwide, with 434 of them being women, which accounts for almost 39 percent of the overall judges and magistrates in this country.