Female Barristers in NZ - By Laura O'Gorman

Female barristers in New Zealand

By Laura O'Gorman (March 2020)

History and percentages

The first female lawyer in New Zealand was Ethel Benjamin. Her first court appearance was on 17 September 1897. She was amongst the earliest women lawyers in the world. Despite that promising beginning in NZ, the proportion of barristers sole who were female remained very low for most of last century.

Significant changes were expected when women began practising law in large numbers. The number of female law graduates has exceeded that of their male counterparts since the early 1990s. Similarly, more women have been admitted than men every year from 1993 onwards [1] (with the proportion sitting at 62.3% for the 2018 calendar year). Of those practising law in NZ, the proportion of people who are women is now more than 51.3% (2019, p34).

Despite this, only 39.8% of barristers sole are women (2019, p37) and the proportion of women at the top levels still lags behind to a significant degree. As at 5 April 2019, 21.4% of Queen's Counsel currently practising were women, compared with 29.3% of partners/directors of large law firms (out of firms with 20+ partners/directors in 2019, p36), and 39.1% of High Court Judges and Associate Judges. This corresponds with research carried out by the NZ Bar Association indicating that, excluding Crown Law figures, women barristers made up around 15% of those appearing as lead counsel at the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.

Current initiatives 

There are many potential reasons for such under-representation, but a major barrier common to all under-represented groups is unconscious bias. This goes well beyond stereotyping. Other potentially harmful cognitive thinking errors that we all tend to make include affinity/in-group bias, blind spot bias, confirmation bias and groupthink. Paradoxically, a belief in meritocracy principles tends to entrench these biases (see the paradox of meritocracy).

There are two major initiatives within the legal profession that are aimed at addressing these problems and improving the retention and advancement of women in the law:

  • In December 2017 NZLS and the New Zealand Bar Association launched the Gender Equitable Engagement and Instruction Policy (GEEIP). Adopters aim to achieve a fair allocation of work and lead roles in major cases and investigations, which includes an obligation to identify and consider instructing suitably skilled women lawyers.
  • In April 2018 NZLS launched its Gender Equality CharterThis contains a number of commitments, including undertaking unconscious bias training, supporting flexible working and actively working to increase gender equality and inclusion in senior legal roles.

Bankside Chambers is an adopter of the GEEIP and a signatory to the Gender Equality Charter. Bankside Chambers offers a large range of New Zealand's leading female barristers, who have vast experience at all levels including before New Zealand's most senior courts. The New Zealand Bar Association also has a useful advanced search platform for identifying barristers with suitable expertise (this can be filtered by location, practice area, years of experience and gender).

[1] Geoff Adlam "Snapshop of the Profession 2019", Lawtalk 926 (March 2019) 27, at 31 (available here).