Launch of the Sydney University Law Society King & Wood Mallesons Women's Mentoring Scheme

King & Woodman Mallesons

Justice Melissa Perry[1] 13 August 2018

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;

With this impassioned plea, Portia, in Shakespeare's the Merchant of Venice, argues Antonio's case against the call by the money-lender, Shylock, for a pound of flesh in repayment of his loan to Antonio.

The tension between the mercy for which Portia pleads so eloquently and the lack of mercy demonstrated towards Shylock who is forced to convert to Christianity, cannot be ignored. The Merchant of Venice is a play as much about racial and religious intolerance, as it is about mercy and love. It is after all a play of the 16th century when sadly such prejudices and discrimination were prevalent, despite the recent re-establishment of Jewish communities in London. But perhaps Shakespeare sought to shine a light on these injustices.

However, I have chosen to begin with this passage to highlight certain progressive aspects of the play given the time at which it was written.

First, what is remarkable is that one of the most powerful and enduring pieces of advocacy is delivered by a woman in an age of men. It is also followed by a clever piece of legal sophistry, whereby Portia successfully argues that Shylock cannot collect his pound of flesh unless he can do so without spilling any of Antonio's blood. Not only therefore does Portia opine on a quality seen as appropriate for women (that of mercy), but she also triumphantly enters the (then) male domain of contractual construction.

Secondly, the context in which Portia's appearance came about in the play is also relevant to the themes I wish to develop. Before she was permitted to appear, the Clerk of the Court read a letter from Doctor Bellario, Portia's cousin, commending her to the Duke, who was presiding over the trial.

Your grace shall understand that at the receipt of
your letter I am very sick: but in the instant that
your messenger came, in loving visitation was with
me a young doctor of Rome; his name is Balthasar. I
acquainted him with the cause in controversy between
the Jew and Antonio the merchant: we turned o'er
many books together: he is furnished with my
opinion; which, bettered with his own learning, the
greatness whereof I cannot enough commend, comes
with him, at my importunity, to fill up your grace's
request in my stead. I beseech you, let his lack of
years be no impediment to let him lack a reverend
estimation; for I never knew so young a body with so
old a head. I leave him to your gracious
acceptance, whose trial shall better publish his

It follows that Portia's appearance for Antonio was facilitated by her cousin's assistance in writing the letter of commendation, as well as lending his Doctor's robes so as to complete her disguise.

And so Portia, who is, to all appearances, a man of tender years, is permitted to appear to make her powerful plea for mercy with the assistance of her mentor.

From this I wish to develop two themes.

First, all of us are present here because of the courage and determination of the women who preceded us in a legal profession once exclusively the province of men. While Portia is of course a fictitious character, the significance of the portrayal of a woman presenting compelling arguments in a court in Shakespeare's day, cannot be underestimated. Surely in some of those trailblazing women, Portia inspired a capacity to dream.

We are connected to those women in the profession who have gone before and to each other as part of a movement which has effected, and continues to effect, great change – change which is not only to the betterment of the legal profession, but also the betterment of the community. As to the latter, I believe that it is essential to public confidence that the legal profession and the judiciary are seen to be a microcosm of society.

Dame Roma Mitchell is one such woman whose story greatly inspired me. She harkens from South Australia where I grew up and spent my early years at the Bar. She was born in 1913 as the eldest daughter of a war widow and her life spanned much of the last century. Dame Roma was one of the first three women to enter legal practice in South Australia after the passage of the Female Law Practitioners Act in 1911. Imagine how isolated and how proud she must have felt when in 1938 she took her seat at the bar table in the High Court as the first female barrister to do so, and subsequently in the 1960's when she became the first female advocate whose voice was heard in that hallowed repository of legal wisdom. Shortly thereafter in 1962 she was the first woman to be appointed Queens Counsel in Australia and in 1965, the first woman to be appointed to judicial office on her appointment to the Supreme Court. It is difficult to appreciate the extent of the changes of which Dame Roma was a part over the period of her career. I remember hearing her speak at a Law Society Dinner in South Australia towards the end of her life and the love, respect and pride in which she was held by the profession left an impression on me which I have never forgotten.

We are right to be inspired by such women and we are right to celebrate them. But I have no doubt that when she and other beacons of hope and encouragement (as Michael Kirby described Dame Roma) embarked upon their careers, they did so with all of the doubts and fears that beset each of us. We must, as I have elsewhere said, remember that such women did not begin where they finished and from this draw courage for ourselves. They too walked paths that required them to overcome professional challenges and obstacles, albeit that their paths were steeper.

Secondly, the gracious words written by Portia's cousin in support of her appearance are a reminder of how the generosity and encouragement of mentors may assist in creating opportunities for those embarking upon a legal career. I cannot imagine that my career would have been same if I had not been blessed with many mentors, male and female, whose doors were open for wise words of advice and encouragement, and who generously took pride in contributing to the development of my career as one of a small number of women then at the bar. Indeed, when I began in 1992 there were only 5 or 6 women at the bar in South Australia (leaving aside those in family law), two of whom practised in my chambers. That said, one of the members is reputed to have said in response to my application that two women were surely more than enough! I hasten to add that that view was to my knowledge held by that member alone.

Conversely, when we become leaders, it is incumbent upon us to assume the role of mentors ourselves. As I said at my swearing in to the Federal Court, as a leader at the Bar I had the absolute pleasure of working with many exceptionally talented and committed juniors and solicitors, benefiting greatly from their intellectual input and enthusiasm. I also had the great pleasure of mentoring highly impressive young women under the Sydney University Law Society mentoring scheme, and continue to be in touch with several of them today. But you don't have to be a partner or silk in order to lead or mentor. All of us can play our part in offering the knowledge, contacts and experience we have to encourage and support others.

Finally, I wish to acknowledge and welcome warmly all of you here for your support, especially those participating in the Mentoring scheme as mentors and mentees. I hope that the professional relationships forged through this scheme will be enduring ones and benefit both those who mentor and those who are mentored, as we all have much to learn from each other. As Portia said of mercy, mentoring, whether formal or informal, is "twice blest": it blesses those who give and those who receive.

I thank you for the opportunity to speak at the 15th anniversary of this inspiring and important initiative.

[1] LL.B (Hons) (Adel), LL.M, PhD (Cantab), FAAL. This presentation draws upon Perry, M, "Women at the Bar: Aspirations and Inspirations", Bar News Winter [2014] 51. The author acknowledges the helpful contribution to the preparation of this speech by her associate, Christabel Richards-Neville.