Today is International Women’s Day, a day observed around the world each year on 8 March to recognise the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.
Queensland Law Society 2023 President Chloé Kopilović said the occasion was an opportunity to celebrate the valuable contributions made by women within the Queensland legal profession.
“The proportion of women in law has grown exponentially since Agnes McWhinney in 1915 became Queensland’s first female solicitor,” Ms Kopilović said. “Women now make up 52% of the Queensland solicitors’ branch.
“This shift is reflected in our current QLS Council – eight out of 12 councillors are women, and this year for the first time we have only women serving as QLS Vice President, President and Immediate Past President.
“As we this year mark the 150th anniversary since the first law society in Queensland, we acknowledge the strong female leaders – including QLS Past Presidents – who have gone before us and helped pave the way for women in the profession.”
One of only three women to graduate from her law school class, the Society’s first female President, Dr Elizabeth Nosworthy AO, commenced her term in 1986.
Looking back, Ms Nosworthy said she was always conscious of being judged at the time – “not only for my own actions, but for all the women who might follow me” – but said she was grateful for the strong support she received from her own generation of lawyers.
Following her tenure, Ms Nosworthy spent time working on secondment in Sydney and eventually became a founding member of the Brisbane office of what is now known as Herbert Smith Freehills. She subsequently made the transition from law to the business world, where she has held a number of directorships.
QLS Proctor invited Ms Nosworthy and other QLS female Past Presidents to share their recollections and reflections; highlights and challenges of leading Queensland’s peak professional body for legal practitioners, significant changes they’ve observed since then, and how the part women play in the profession has transformed over time.
QLS Proctor: You became the first woman to accede to the role of QLS President in 1986 – can you share a snapshot of the legal landscape at that time?
Elizabeth: My presidency came during an interesting time for the profession in Queensland; the time when the first national law firms were starting to come into existence in Australia. At the same time, many of the large accounting firms were expanding their practices into work beyond the traditional accounting and finance fields. Many of the major companies and banks were ramping up their in-house legal departments, and there was an influx of foreign banks into the country. The large Queensland law firms were already starting to take these developments into account in their forward planning, and were looking at how they might fit into national firms and how their specialised fields of law would be impacted.
Up until that time, the large Queensland firms had been heavily involved with QLS, both at Council level and in many committees. But it was already clear that, going forward, the strategic interests of many of the large firms would begin to diverge from that of small firms, particularly suburban and country firms. The large firms would have the resources to prosecute their own interests, but other firms would need more and varied support from QLS to protect their growth and profitability going forward. It was also obvious that the profession as a whole was looking to QLS for very robust advocacy, so it was a time when significant change was beginning in the profession.
QLS Proctor: What were some challenges and highlights of your term?
Elizabeth: Of course, as the first woman President there were many challenges and I was always conscious of the fact that I was being judged; not only for my own actions, but for all the women who might follow me. That said, I am truly grateful for the very strong support I received from my own generation of lawyers.
One of the great pleasures for me during my tenure was the time I spent in country towns all through the state; meeting with and being entertained by the local lawyers. Having spent my career in a large law firm, it was a real lesson for me and very humbling to see firsthand the contribution our country members make to their communities, and to understand better the issues concerning their practices. It is very easy in a large firm to become distanced from the community you serve, and this is not an option for most suburban and country members who are much closer to their communities.
QLS Proctor: Some 35 years have passed since your presidency – what significant changes have you observed since then?
Elizabeth: I originally became involved with QLS via a young lawyers committee that set up the first seminars – the beginning of the very comprehensive professional development programs the Society now offers. When we began, we encountered considerable opposition from more senior members of the Society and it was quite a fight to get any support at all. On a number of occasions, our committee members themselves had to pay the costs of organising seminars because the Society was not supportive.
Thankfully all that had changed by the time I became President, and I’m really excited to see that continuing professional development is such a significant part of the Society’s work today. I’m also very pleased that the membership of the QLS Council and committees now properly reflects the variety of firms and geographical regions that QLS represents.
Of course, I’m also very pleased that there have been many women who have now become President and have done a great job, and that there are now so many women lawyers working in the profession, particularly at partner level. Only three women graduated from my original law school class – so the change has been very significant.
QLS Proctor: Looking back, how do you reflect on your tenure as QLS President?
Julie-Anne: I reflect on it very fondly because I worked with a very committed group of QLS Councillors who were dealing actively and effectively with the issues of their day, just as each Council has done in the times in which those Councillors serve – it’s always great to be part of a rich tapestry of an organisation.
The other thing that stands out is it was just fantastic to meet so many practitioners from all over Queensland. QLS was never a Brisbane-centric organisation; it was always a whole-of-Queensland organisation, and as I went around – whether it was the Brisbane CBD in the big firms or around the small firms in the outlying areas – it struck me that the primary concerns were always firstly, the interests of justice, and secondly, their clients. I always thought that was pretty impressive – clients and the law at the forefront.
QLS Proctor: How has the part that women play in the profession changed since you became part of it?
Julie-Anne: When I was at law school there were a half a dozen of us, and I became one of the few female partners in a law firm at the time. That was a credit to the male partners who gave me that opportunity and encouraged me to do other things, so I’m indebted to that. The part that women play in the legal profession has changed remarkably since then and I think they’ve been responsible for enormous change.
Women are now numerically dominant in Queensland, and not just that, they take leadership positions both within the profession and within their own law firms. That’s had a huge impact on advocacy, corporatisation and innovation – I think woman have really been in the vanguard of technological and ultimately workplace change, leading to more inclusive and safer workplaces.
QLS Proctor: What strikes you as some of the biggest changes lawyers have experienced since you were President?
Julie-Anne: The technological changes and the advancements – lawyers were always astute to that, and management courses back then were pointing to the technological changes that have come to pass. Lawyers were starting to think more broadly about how they could improve their practices and, therefore, client service – I suspect care for clients has never changed, but the way in which the profession delivers that, and its breadth of approach, has changed.
Further, legal advice would not be perhaps as narrowly given now – the world is more complex, so the advice would be given from a much more holistic perspective, or other factors would be taken into account. I think lawyers have evolved, as has the technology, and that’s probably a credit to all concerned.
QLS Proctor: What was your experience like as QLS President?
Megan: It was an honour, a privilege and a truly memorable experience to be in a position of leadership at the Society and represent the solicitors of Queensland. The people I met, the places I visited and the events I attended made the long hours and many challenges well worth it. While there is no doubt that it was a significant impost on my practice and family life at the time, it was an incomparable experience and one I continue to value.
Serving in a representative role at QLS provides an opportunity to give back to the profession and contribute to broader policy issues for the benefit of all Queenslanders. The Society’s important work is not always fully appreciated by those who have never been involved with it in the many ways that are possible. Whether it be an elected councillor, a volunteer on the many policy and interest groups, or a speaker at a QLS conference, that contribution will be rewarded in many ways, even if it is professional development opportunities.
QLS Proctor: Career-wise, what have been some of your highlights since then?
Megan: I established Mahon Legal in 2012, the firm at which I was practising until my appointment as Legal Services Commissioner in 2019. Other highlights along the way have included the humbling recognition of my peers in being awarded the WLAQ Woman Lawyer of the Year in 2009 (of particular significance for me was being nominated by the Honourable Margaret McMurdo AC, then President of the Queensland Court of the Appeal) and receiving the QLS President’s Medal in 2017. While none of us enter the profession for the accolades, when you are heavily involved in a busy practice and balancing other professional, community and family commitments, it is humbling and satisfying to have your efforts acknowledged.
Running and growing Mahon Legal was a highlight of its own – I have always considered the practice of law to be a great honour; as legal practitioners we get to assist people from all walks of life and in many different ways. The trust they place in us should never be taken for granted; it is that service to others and the privileged ability to be able to help someone make things right – or simply keep things on track – that is incredibly rewarding, and reminded me of the reasons I practised law.
My current role as Legal Services Commissioner is one that I also consider to be a great honour and privilege. It provides an opportunity to continue to support a strong and ethical legal profession in Queensland, and ensure that unacceptable conduct and unlawful operators don’t detract from the many hard-working and ethical practitioners throughout the state.
QLS Proctor: From your perspective, how has female representation in law changed in the last 15 years?
Megan: While many things have changed, much is still the same and there are many opportunities for further improvement. Looking at the current celebration of the Society’s full history (from the first meeting of 15 solicitors held at the Supreme Court in Brisbane on 7 August 1873), that equates to me having been only the third female president in 135 years!
In that context, it is very much worth noting that since my term, there have been a great increase in both female representation on QLS Council, and of female QLS Presidents. Indeed, we have just witnessed the third successive female president of QLS take office, and the succession may go further yet. With only one male practitioner on the Council last year, times have definitely changed.
However, gender is only one diversity factor that we should be seeking to embrace, and there are many others warranting representation. Council members have also generally gotten younger over the years; that too, is a good thing. Broad representation of the demographics of the solicitors’ branch should be reflected in its elected Council.
QLS Proctor: How do you sum up your term as QLS President, 2021?
Elizabeth: Although I was President during a COVID year, by the time I came to the role, the hard work about repositioning to deal with the pandemic had already been done. So I was the beneficiary of a system of increased collaboration across the profession and with the courts – this provided a great platform for further collaboration.
I was fortunate to be able to meet so many solicitors from regional centres, and celebrate with them the contribution that solicitors make to civil society right across Queensland. It was also a highlight to be the face of the Society’s advocacy for good law, and to witness how much work is done by our committees, supported by our policy staff – further, to see how effective this is at ensuring better laws are passed by Parliament.
QLS Proctor: If you had to identify the ‘legacy’ you left as QLS President, what would it be?
Elizabeth: I was very pleased that our advocacy – over years – for better funding for lawyers doing legal aid work was successful, with a significant funding injection by the Queensland Government. More is needed, particularly for funding of civil law cases, but it was a start.
A great thing about the role of QLS President is that it changes with each President. We each bring our own experience to the role, and while there are some things we all do, we also each get to focus on the things that our own experience tells us are important.
QLS Proctor: What does International Women’s Day mean to you?
Elizabeth: International Women’s Day is about reflecting on and celebrating how far we have come in, what seems to me, very recent times. It’s also an opportunity to recognise women’s achievements in the profession – not just those who were the first, but all of us who have made our way.
When I was a law student in the late 1970s and early 1980s, women were just starting to be there in numbers – we made up almost 40% of the class. But fewer of us got jobs in legal practice. I am still immensely grateful for the example of the women before me who managed to be mothers and lawyers. There were not many of them, and it was not easy, but they showed it was possible.
QLS Proctor: Only a couple of months have passed since your tenure as QLS President, but how was the experience?
Kara: 2022 was a very inclusive year. I was very proud of the way the QLS Council came together, supported each other and supported the Society’s work. The advocacy work of QLS continued to be held in high regard and it was often called upon for insights and input; a real demonstration of the leadership of the President, the Council, QLS policy solicitors and all the committee members. It also demonstrated the significant leadership displayed by previous Presidents and councils over many decades. Our focus and tenacity to bring to the forefront good law, good lawyers for the public good is an amazing feat and I am very proud to have been part of it.
QLS Proctor: Could you share some specific highlights from your term?
Kara: There are too many highlights! But there are three that I would specifically call out. The first is the absolute awe at being able to participate in parliamentary committee hearings with experts in the law, who had dedicated significant time and expertise to educating stakeholders about key legislative reforms. Their skill, knowledge and willingness to share that with others just amazed me and I am so grateful for their efforts, not just in relation to whilst I was President, but as a member of this legal profession – we are most certainly in good hands.
The second is being able to represent our profession at countless ceremonies and events throughout the year. It sounds simple, but it is actually a really important part of the role of President. It is an opportunity to raise in a public way current issues, to recognise members of the profession and to demonstrate collegiality and support for the profession and the administration of justice.
The third is attending recognition events for longstanding members of QLS, particularly those who had achieved 50 years of membership. It is an incredible achievement and I was just so thrilled to be part of their journey – I am also looking forward to seeing many women reach the milestone in coming years.
QLS Proctor: In your opinion, what are some of the challenges that women in law face?
Kara: This is a difficult question for me to answer. Women have faced, and continue to face, many challenges within the legal profession. Many of those challenges relate to the balancing act of juggling family commitments and the pressure of practice, as well as challenges about even deciding to start or continue a family when it has a potential impact on career progression.
But, many of these challenges are not unique to women and there are individuals and groups within our profession that we women need to – and do – support as they push through their own challenges. I guess one of the biggest challenges is finding alliances within the legal profession and working in a way that can benefit the whole of the profession, bringing a well-rounded and diverse skill set to the practice of law.
QLS female Presidents, past and present
- Elizabeth Nosworthy – 1986-1987
- Julie-Anne Schafer – 1995-1996
- Megan Mahon – 2007-2008
- Annette Bradfield – 2013
- Christine Smyth – 2017
- Elizabeth Shearer – 2021
- Kara Thomson – 2022
- Chloé Kopilović – 2023