“Her Honour Has Smashed the Glass Ceiling”: Australian Women Lawyers President on New Chief Justice Susan Kiefel

Posted on December 13, 2016 at 8:51 am | legal practice
Australian Women Lawyers

In a little over a month, Susan Kiefel will make history as the first female to don the robes of Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia. A long-serving Senior Puisne Judge in the High Court of Australia, Justice Kiefel brings to the role 23 years’ experience as a judge and 16 years’ experience as a barrister.

When speaking of the appointment, Attorney General George Brandis described Justice Kiefel as the “overwhelmingly favourite candidate”. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull summarised Justice Kiefel’s career and life to date as “an inspiration.” Indeed, to many, including Justice Kiefel, this appointment is seen as the ‘natural progression’ from her role as Senior Puisne Judge on the High Court.

For Ann-Maree David, the President of Australian Women Lawyers and Executive Director at the College of Law Queensland, the announcement is a hallmark of how much has been achieved in the push for gender equality – and how much still remains to be addressed.

David spoke to Insights about Justice Kiefel’s career, her landmark appointment, and its significance for lawyers across the nation.

“Justice Kiefel has long been a trailblazer among Australian women lawyers,” David said.

Prior to her High Court appointment, Justice Kiefel served as a Judge on both the Federal Court of Australia and the Supreme Court of Queensland. She was also the first woman in Queensland to have been appointed Queen’s Counsel. However, as David points out, Justice Kiefel’s early years were just as impressive, albeit for different reasons.

“What the Prime Minister and many commentators also found remarkable was Her Honour’s unconventional early career, which does not mirror that of any of her judicial peers,” she said.

“The streak of independence that saw the judge choose to leave school at 15 to find an ‘interesting career’ is what I find most inspirational. She clearly was looking for more than was on offer for girls her age in that era.”

From there, Justice Kiefel went on to work as a secretary for a barrister’s practice – an experience that compelled her to qualify as a lawyer.

“The implications of her appointment for all who aspire to a legal career are that hard work and steely determination are required, but the rewards are there for those who chase them,” David said.

“I believe we are seeing similar displays of determination and grit among many lawyers who are choosing paths less travelled – or forging entirely new pathways in law.”

While Justice Kiefel’s achievements have helped to pave the way for future female lawyers, David asserts the feat extends beyond one person.

“In my mind, there is no doubt that Her Honour has smashed the glass ceiling,” David said.

“However, there are other factors at play which are producing cracks in the glass ceiling, thus weakening this barrier to women lawyers. Take, for example, the increase in corporate clients who demand to see women lawyers on legal panels vying for their legal work. We’re also seeing far more flexible work practices; not only do these aid productivity, they allow lawyers to pursue other roles and interests, such as caring for family members, study or travel.

“Such cultural shifts are creating much-needed opportunities for the sheer numbers of law graduates who are being admitted to practice every year.  And more than half of those law graduates are women.

“The Chief Justice may have smashed through the ceiling, but she has reinforcements coming through the ranks who will fight hard to ensure it is never replaced.”

Despite the precedent set by Justice Kiefel, the statistics indicate that there is more to be done. Results released by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency show that a 30.5% total-remuneration gender pay gap still exists within the legal services sector, while women comprise a mere 5.8% of the profession’s CEOS.

“I joined the Board of Australian Woman Lawyers because there is much work to be done to achieve gender equality and I see the value in collaboration,” said David, who also chairs Queensland Law Society’s Equalising Opportunities in the Law Committee. “As Helen Keller once said, ‘Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.’

David is hopeful that Justice Kiefel’s appointment marks a turning point for gender equality.

“This historic announcement demonstrates that no role in the legal profession is unattainable by women,” David said.

“Intended or not, Her Honour’s appointment speaks volumes about the value of diversity in the legal profession.”

Ann-Maree David is Executive Director of The College of Law Queensland. Prior to establishing the Queensland campus of the College of Law in 2003, David spent 30 years in public and corporate sector legal roles and in private practice as a solicitor.

Having recently being appointed President of Australian Women Lawyers, she is committed to highlighting and overcoming barriers to career progression in law experienced by women and minority groups.

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