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DLA Piper celebrates 100 years of supporting women in law

Author: Tracey Cross, Partner, DLA Piper

Since the 1990s, more women than men have been graduating in law, but the profession has dragged the chain in accommodating women in senior roles. That is changing, which is something to celebrate. We are delighted to have the Right Honourable Dame Helen Winkelmann, Chief Justice of New Zealand, as our keynote speaker at a special function on October 31st to honour the centenary of the first female partner to be appointed in New Zealand, Lyra Taylor.

Lyra Taylor was appointed partner in our Wellington office in 1919. 100 years on, now 45% of our partners are female, which illustrates the swift rise of women within the Law in recent years.

The Chief Justice will reflect on her own career, and changes within the profession and judiciary over that time. She was appointed to the High Court bench in 2004, became Chief High Court Judge in 2010, joined the Court of Appeal in 2015 and was appointed Chief Justice in 2018. She was our Auckland office’s first female partner.

Women wouldn't be generally employed in law firms until the labour shortages of World War I (aside from a very few office clerks and ‘typistes’ who operated the newfangled typewriter). While they did begin to practise law very late in the 19th century (Ethel Benjamin received her degree from Otago University in 1897), it wasn't until the mid-1970s that women began to graduate in law in significant numbers.

Lyra Taylor is thought to have been not only the first woman lawyer to practise in partnership in New Zealand, but possibly the only one until the 1940s. She was an outstanding person, who was driven by social justice issues, particularly as they affected women and children. She was involved with the National Council of Women from 1918 and was a pro bono lawyer for the Society for the Protection of Women and Children from 1921. She went on to work, lecture and study overseas, became renowned for her social work, and was awarded an OBE.

She is a remarkable NZ woman about which not enough is known, and she deserves our celebration of her life this month. Lyra died forty years ago, after a long life in which she never stopped contributing to the progress of both women and those less robust than she was. She was a gift New Zealand gave to the world, and DLA Piper is proud to honour her.

It is true, as Isaac Newton said, that to see far enough to show the way forward we must stand on the shoulders of others who have gone before. And before progressive changes happen, there are always people who swim, bravely, against the tide, and in doing so make the tide turn. In the Law they have been women like the Chief Justice and Lyra Taylor.

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