Is it just me or are you also a little tired of seeing the latest article about diversity in the legal profession which only highlights the lack of women at senior levels in BigLaw? Who decided that large firms are the holy grail of legal practice? And why should these firms be expected to solely carry the diversity and inclusion banner for the rest of the profession?
With more than 20% of the profession practising in-house and leading chief lawyers such as Solicitor-General Una Jagose, Spark General Counsel Melissa Anastasiou, MBIE Chief Legal Advisor Ann Brennan, Air NZ General Counsel Karen Clayton, Chorus General Counsel Vanessa Oakley, DIA Chief Legal Advisor Hiranthi Abeygoonesekera and many others, isn't it time to change the conversation and encourage and celebrate diversity across the wider legal profession?
Around the world, and particularly in the US and UK, being a chief lawyer in a significant in-house legal role shows that you are at the top of your game. But in New Zealand, it still seems to be seen as a consolation prize. I have even read articles lamenting women "leaving the legal profession" to go in-house. Let's be clear, there are numerous ways to practise law in this country and the more we celebrate this, the better the profession will be and the better the public perception of the profession will be.
Let's ask ourselves what factors success or merit are being measured on. The quality and complexity of the legal work being performed? The prestige? Or just the pay? Surely we can all agree that the rigour and calibre of legal analysis being undertaken at Crown Law is among the very best in this country. That the in-house legal teams who have established centres of excellence in their areas of law are leading the way. That some of the most significant commercial transactions in this country are now being handled largely in-house by expert and seasoned lawyers.
It might be true that the public sector doesn't pay as well as private practice but private sector in-house roles are coming close. Even then, we all know that it's not partners in the big firms earning the most - it's the owners of a tiny handful of boutique practices and the top QCs. And many public-sector lawyers I speak to are driven by far greater motivations than dollars and cents. So if it’s not quality, complexity or remuneration, then all that is left is prestige or brand value. And that does not reflect the inherent value in serving a diverse client base in a community law centre or serving our most vulnerable citizens in a public-sector agency devoted to social change.
The in-house legal profession is leading at least one facet of the diversity charge with nearly 40% of chief legal roles held by women, but we need to acknowledge that diversity has many more aspects than gender. We should also be celebrating and showcasing greater diversity in roles across the profession. We salute lawyers in community law centres, boutique firms, the Public Defence Service, specialist sole practices, legal start-ups developing technology platforms and in-house legal teams as the many varied faces of legal practice. So next time someone wants to admirably measure and report diversity and inclusion metrics in the legal profession, can it please be across the whole of the modern profession.