Keynote speech

King & Wood Mallesons women's mentoring program

Justice Anna Katzmann [1] 6 August 2015

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I am greatly honoured to have been invited to deliver this speech. I thank Sydney University Law Society and Meena in particular for extending the invitation to me.

I have been asked to speak about my experiences as a barrister and a judge, my thoughts on the role of women in professional life and the importance of mentorship.

Let me deal first with matters of definition.

A mentor is a person who offers support and guidance to other people, generally speaking, people with less experience –– a person in whom trust and confidence is reposed.

It might be said that the first mentor was a woman or, at least, a female. In Homer's The Odyssey, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, appears to Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, disguised as the elderly Mentes or Mentor, a family friend, and in that role encourages Telemachus to withstand the importuning of suitors and to search for his father. As one academic writer put it, she "stirs up Telemachus and gets him to act on his own" and she does so "with concrete practical advice". In so doing she begins "to turn the boy into an adult".[2]

"Mentor" became a common noun, it seems, only after the publication of a popular epic French retelling of The Odyssey by a French educator named Francois de Salignac de La Mothe-Fenelon published in 1699 – Les Adventures de Telemaque.

And now to me.

I was admitted to the bar at the age of 24. I taught law at what is now UTS and, after the first six months, I practised at the bar contemporaneously. In theory, this was quite practical as, at that time, all students were part-timers and no class began before 4 pm. I had plenty of role models, including a few women, but no mentor. I can assure you that was my misfortune. When I went to the bar I knew nothing and nobody. If anyone should have had a mentor, it should have been me. Like all barristers in their first year I did, however, have a tutor or pupil-master as they were then known who acted as a mentor. There was then no formal mentoring system in place after the first year. One can learn a lot in 12 months at the bar. I certainly did. But after 12 months many barristers rightly took the view that they could benefit greatly from the assistance and wise counsel of others and did not know where to turn. I was one of those.

In 2001 the NSW Bar Council, which is the governing body of barristers in this State, piloted a mentoring scheme for women barristers in their second year of practice. Its object was to assist in the practice development of female junior barristers. The scheme was an initiative of the Bar Association's Equal Opportunity Committee and was championed by its then chair, Michael Slattery QC, now Justice Slattery of the NSW Supreme Court. The scheme was such a success that it was extended to women in their third year of practice. Later, losing site of the purpose of the program, it was opened up to men. The Bar Association also hosts an open day each year for female law students where students get the opportunity to see women barristers and judges in action and to talk to them informally. This year it will be held on 14 August and I expect many of you will attend.

Unlike Sydney University Law Society's program, however, the NSW Bar's women's mentoring scheme did not set out to pair women with women, at least in part because with women at that time comprising only 7% of the bar (it is now 21%) it was thought that it would impose too great a burden on the limited numbers of senior female barristers. There are, however, some real advantages, it seems to me, in a female lawyer having a female mentor. In part that it is because role models are important. But it is also because – as one female barrister put it to me – it is advantageous to be able to confide in and seek guidance from someone like you, someone who looks like you, someone who is likely to have had the same kind of experiences as you, someone who has overcome the obstacles you might think are insurmountable, someone whom you don't regard as a competitor and someone of whom you feel comfortable asking the stupid questions. I would add that, although it is certainly not universally the case, you can usually expect more empathy and compassion from a woman and, as Justice Margaret Beazley put it at an earlier launch of this program, it takes the sex out of mentoring. Moreover, there are some things that we prefer to discuss with other women. For all these reasons I applaud the Sydney University Law Society's program and I congratulate King & Wood Mallesons for its sponsorship of the program.

It is not all a one-way street, however. A mentoring relationship can be mutually beneficial. Explaining how and why you do something forces you to reflect on what you do, what you have done, what mistakes you have made and how you could do it better. What is more, a good mentoring relationship can blossom into a friendship. At the bar, at least, most relationships tended to endure.

The selection of the mentor is of critical importance. Like any relationship the parties need to be compatible and the mentor must be suitable both in character and personality and professionally. In my view, the responsibility to ensure that the match is a good one and the mentor is appropriate rests predominantly with the administrator of the program.

I was admitted as a barrister in December 1979. There were at that time only two women in the country sitting as judges on superior courts (Roma Mitchell on the South Australian Supreme Court and Elizabeth Evatt on the Family Court). Fewer than 40 women practised as barristers in New South Wales and we had, if my memory serves me right, only two female silks. The situation improved over time but 25 years later, in a speech delivered at a dinner hosted by the Western Australian Law Society, former Justice Michael McHugh, spoke of the dearth of female counsel in the High Court, particularly women with speaking parts. His explanation was that discrimination (mostly direct and overt) against female lawyers had been rife in the profession throughout the 43 years in which he was a member of it. He speculated that these days the discrimination is mostly indirect, that is to say, it is the product of practices that are neutral on their face but have a disproportionately adverse impact on women. The occasion for this speech was the lamentable situation in which the High Court was placed after the premature retirement of Mary Gaudron when not one of the seven justices was a woman.[3] Fortunately that situation was short-lived and we now have three women on the High Court, roughly coinciding with the proportion of female to male practitioners.[4]

As for the profession, it is now bursting with women, more so in the solicitor's branch than at the bar, but the numbers of women barristers continue to climb. When I took silk in 1997 I was one of two women appointed that year in NSW (Virginia Bell was the other) but the numbers of women silk are also increasing. This is an inevitable result of the fact that since the late 1980s or early 1990s women law students have been outperforming men in both quantitative and qualitative terms. 12 of the 19 associates to judges on our Court are female. More and more women are being appointed to the bench. Both Labor and Conservative governments are committed to equality of opportunity. Slowly but surely the glass ceiling is being broken. It is an exciting time to be a woman in the law.

[1] Judge of the Federal Court of Australia and Additional Judge of the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory.

[2] Michael Murrin, "Athena and Telemachus, International Journal of the Classical Tradition, Vol 13, No 4, Spring 2007, pp 499–514.

[3] M McHugh, "Women Justices for the High Court", Speech delivered at the High Court Dinner hosted by the Western Australia Law Society, 27 October 2004

[4] Ainslie Lamb & John Littrich, Lawyers in Australia (Federation Press, 2nd ed, 2011) p 75.