Former Western Australian Law Society president Judy Eckert deliberately avoided referring to gender in her speech to welcome Christine Wheeler as the State’s female Supreme Court justice in 1996.
Ms Eckert was the law society’s inaugural female president (1995-96) and looks forward to the day that no special interest is given to women in prominent roles simply because they are women.
Practising as a barrister from Francis Burt Chambers since 2002, Ms Eckert has worked primarily on the development of the legislative package for the State Administrative Tribunal, and is chair of the Real Estate and Business Agents Supervisory Board.
For the past nine years she also has been a member of the Law Council of Australia’s Equalising Opportunities in the Law Committee, and for the past two years has been a member of the Western Australia Bar Association Equal Opportunity Committee.
Ms Eckert is adamant the issues women in law have experienced are not women’s issues, but management issues.
“Firms are investing a substantial amount of money in training women, and to not be able to retain them or accommodate their needs it is simply bad management,” Ms Eckert said.
“Women have done much better in the legal profession than other professions like engineering and accounting.
“This has got to be seen as a management issue.”
Ms Eckert became the first female partner of Northmore Hale Davy and Leake (now Minter Ellison) within four years of becoming admitted as a solicitor, overcoming some obstacles inherent along the way.
“I was specialising in resources, and had to become one of the boys,” she said. “Clients want the best, they don’t care if you are a man or a woman.
“However, unless firms promote women the same way they do men, there will never be equality.
“Firms are not geared towards women with families, and time and time again I have seen men appointed over women.
“A lot of women are not taught to value themselves or given the opportunity to promote themselves and get a name.”
After nine years with Northmore Hale Davy and Leake, Ms Eckert joined the Crown Solicitors Office, where she remained for 11 years before going to the bar.
“I have had a lot of government work, but I am hoping to diversify my practice again in commercial and related work,” she said.
Ms Eckert said her husband’s decision to stay home with their three children for seven years had helped her pursue career opportunities and success she otherwise would not have had.
“I certainly would not have been able to become president of the law society if my husband hadn’t stayed home with the kids,” she said.
“I was president with four-year-old twins and a newborn.
“Family always came first and my kids haven’t missed out on a thing.
“It is possible to have a successful career and be a good mother, but you always feel like you are not doing one properly.”
Ms Eckert said she knew of women who had four to five “staff” in order to juggle the pressures of a career and motherhood,.
“I am astonished that women weren’t generals,” she said. “Firms need to be much more aware and give flexibility if they want to retain employees.
“Change has to be effected at large because the problem is endemic at base level.”
Ms Eckert believes time and increasing numbers of women in the profession are not sufficient drivers of change. Instead, new policies need to be implemented and promoted, she says.
“A lot of people do not realise they are the subject of discrimination,” Ms Eckert told WA Business News. “It can be very subtle; which clients you are given, the functions you are taken out to and the opportunity you have to get a name for yourself.
“The A word is needed, ‘affirmative’ action, but I don’t think the profession would react very well to that.”