Better get a lawyer son, better get a female one

Editor’s note: adapted version of this article published by Women’s Agenda on 6 January 2015. Read it here. 

One month ago we launched this new website. The feedback from our clients, colleagues and friends has been overwhelmingly positive. It seems many of you out there are just as excited as we are to be part of something that is bold, new and unashamedly ‘different’.

In the feedback process, an important question was asked of us: “where’s the diversity?” This was in reference to the fact that we are currently a team of women. That is the face we confidently and, perhaps for some, brazenly present to the world on our home page.

Here’s how I answered that question:

 “As for diversity – gender is but one aspect of diversity. We are a very mixed bunch hailing from various parts of the world and with very different family backgrounds and life experiences…We all practice differently and many a client will expressly prefer Savina over me or vice versa (for example) purely on the basis of personality rather than skill. Our diversity attracts our diverse client base. They come for Hallie’s Southern hospitality and impeccable service, for Savina’s understanding of the unique Chinese culture and ability to speak Mandarin, for Bianca’s intelligence and swift response time. The fact that all of my employed team are currently women is a matter of circumstance rather than design. I will continue to fill our available positions with the best candidates for the job, irrespective of gender.”

The question left me pondering: would the same question be asked of these lawyers? What about these?

What do lawyers look like? More importantly, what does a ‘great lawyer’ look like?

Images reminiscent of Atticus Finch, Perry Mason and Jack McCoy probably come to mind. It is more than fifty years since Gregory Peck graced our screens in To Kill a Mockingbird. Is this still what “lawyerly” looks like?

If art imitates life, then none of this is surprising. Or rather, it wasn’t surprising fifty years ago. I fear that what we see now is the reverse: life imitating art. As I wrote in my recent letter to the editor of the NSW Law Society Journal, women continue to struggle to reach the upper echelons of the legal profession, notwithstanding we have been part of it for more than a century. The problem persists even while women now graduate from law schools in higher numbers than men.

The struggle for seniority is particularly difficult when it comes to commercial and litigious work. Even with three women sitting on our High Court bench (soon to be two) and more women advocates on their feet in a courtroom than ever before, the misconception that men just do this stuff better seems to persist, with no legitimate reasoning to back it up.

In an age of flexible working arrangements, with freedom wrought by technology and non-traditional opportunities now open to women willing to embrace innovative practice models, women’s inferior position in this profession can no longer be explained away with reference to the responsibilities of child bearing and child rearing. There are plenty of us out there who are making our way quite nicely with tots in tow, thank you very much.

The fact is that women make excellent lawyers. I believe that, instead of trying to shape ourselves to fit the established (male) mould, we should showcase our distinctly female attributes such as empathy, resilience, perseverance and dedication. These are the hallmarks of high quality legal advice and representation and they are part of our DNA. Who better than a working mum to efficiently manage time (which almost invariably equates to cost), be calm under pressure and creatively resolve conflict? As women in this profession, we work harder because we have always had to go the extra mile to prove ourselves. Our standards are higher because we are called to account and explain far more often. We are underestimated by our opponents based on looks alone which is always a mistake. A crouching tiger can be a particularly valuable asset.

I look forward to the day when the term “woman lawyer” is no longer tainted with sexism and has instead been reclaimed as a badge of excellence. I call on women lawyers and the many other professional women stuck in ‘boy’s clubs’ to confidently assert their expertise: we are women, we are here, and we may in fact do it better.

Just because Atticus Finch cast the mould doesn’t mean Alicia Florrick shouldn’t do her damnedest to break it.


Julianna Margulies plays lawyer Alicia Florrick in CBS’s “The Good Wife”

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