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by Lauren Croft - July 23, 2024

Aussie solicitors are now ‘younger, more female and more diverse’

The sixth National Profile of Solicitors report has been published, revealing that four years after female lawyers first outnumbered their male counterparts, women in law have reached another important milestone.

The 2022 National Profile of Solicitors, compiled by consultancy firm Urbis and released on Friday (5 May) presents a demographic picture of the legal profession in Australia and how it has evolved over time, compiling data provided by state and territory law societies and regulators.

It shows that the Australian legal profession is larger than ever at over 90,000 practising solicitors, with women dominating on every front.

Law Society of NSW chief executive Sonja Stewart said that women have been in the majority in the profession since the last report was published in 2020.

“Women continue to outnumber male solicitors in all states and territories. They now make up 55 per cent of all solicitors in Australia. In 2011, women accounted for 46 per cent of the nation’s 57,577 solicitors,” she said.

“The high rate of female entry into the profession continues to be evident with the total number of female solicitors rising 86 per cent in the past 11 years, while the number of male solicitors grew by 32 per cent over the same period.”

The trend of female solicitors outnumbering their male counterparts was a trend first observed in 2018 — and since 2011, 86 per cent of those entering the profession have been female, compared to 32 per cent of men.

“I’d say that the trend had started quite a while ago, particularly at university. So since 1993, there’s been more female law graduates than men,” Ms Stewart told Lawyers Weekly.

In 2022, all states and territories across Australia continued to have a greater proportion of female solicitors than male solicitors.

According to the last report, based on 2020 data and published in July 2021, women made up 53 per cent of Australia’s legal profession. Now, 55 per cent of solicitors across the country are female, with women making up the majority of every legal sector for the first time.

In 2022, over two-thirds of solicitors in Australia were working in private practice (67 per cent). This was consistent across all jurisdictions, with the exception of the ACT and the Northern Territory, in which they were larger. For the first time, females represented half of all private practice solicitors.

“For some time now, women have made up the majority of government lawyers (69 per cent), in-house counsel (61 per cent) and solicitors working in the legal assistance sector (70 per cent). These new figures show for the first time that in private practice, the genders are now represented equally,” Ms Stewart added.

“Given a substantial majority of Australian solicitors work in private practice, the achievement of gender parity marks a significant chapter in the development of the legal profession in this country.

“The trend was coming, and because people were leaving uni at higher numbers being women. But what has happened this year is that there were more women than men in the community legal sector in the in-house, corporate legal sector, in the government, legal sector, but now it’s 50-50 in the private sector too.”

The mean age for women is 39 years, while it is 46 years for men. But despite the profession being majority female, 13 per cent of all male solicitors were aged 65 years and older compared to only 3 per cent of females.

Although this shows that women are still leaving the profession much earlier than men, these statistics are still slightly higher than the previous report’s numbers (two per cent), which Ms Stewart said was likely due to the increase in a number of policies and initiatives within the profession that benefit women, including increased parental leave and gender equity targets.

“For many years, government and community legal sector were the employee’s choice, particularly in terms of more flexible approaches to work and in maternity leave provisions,” she explained.

“What’s happened since we’ve been collecting this data is that firms all across Australia are thinking a lot more deeply about the attraction and retention of talent and policies and practices to ensure that that happens, particularly around female talent.”

Earlier this year, Lawyers Weekly’s Legal Firm of Choice Survey showed that women and junior lawyers were among the most likely to leave their firms. This came after law firm leaders emphasised the importance of flexibility, particularly for working parents — something which Ms Stewart said is likely to continue to positively impact the profession.

“I think what this data shows is that the law is a really attractive profession for women and men, but it’s becoming more attractive for females, and that female solicitors can see a really rewarding career at all stages. And whilst perhaps they were leaving five to eight years post-admission, that may not be the case anymore. Australian solicitors are younger, more female, and they’re more diverse.”

“I think that as we’re having more women, who are university students, not just in our profession, but overall, more female lawyers, who graduate from university, more entering the profession, and then you will see more women throughout all the stages of a career,” she added.

“There are those key times in your career where you’re thinking about career progression, work/life balance, perhaps family and other caring responsibilities, but this data is showing that women are staying; not only are they entering, but they’re staying in the profession.”

Therefore, equity in the profession and attracting female talent are likely to remain headline issues over the course of this year, Ms Stewart opined.

“Firms — and people who make key decisions — are now understanding the importance of a diverse and inclusive workforce in attracting the right talent, retaining the right talent, productivity, engagement and competitive advantage,” she added.

“I think that over a number of years, firms, particularly in private practice, are seeing the importance of that.”

This article originally featured in Lawyer's Weekly