Life / Life after law school / Student life

Spotlight on Law Students’ Societies: Otago Women Lawyers’ Society (OWLETS)

 by Megan Exton, University of Otago

In 1897, a woman appeared in court as counsel for the first time in the British Empire. This woman was Ethel Benjamin, a University of Otago graduate and the first woman in New Zealand to be admitted to legal practice. Given the hurdles faced by women at the time, her pioneering spirit is nothing short of inspirational. When Ethel Benjamin enrolled in law school in 1893, it was unclear whether she would be able to practice law; it was not until 1896 that the Female Law Practitioners Act was passed to allow women to practice law in New Zealand.

Ethel Benjamin graduated top of her class. Despite this, the Otago District Law Society did not allow her full access to their library and excluded her from annual dinners due to her status as a woman. Thankfully, this sort of blatant discrimination is no longer tolerated. In 2013, women accounted for 61.8% of new admissions to the legal profession, a figure that would surely make Ethel Benjamin proud. However, there is still progress to be made. Despite lots of women entering the legal profession, in 2015 women still only accounted for 27.1% of partners and directors in New Zealand law firms. The Law Society recognises that there is still a gender imbalance in the legal profession, and that it must be addressed.


Otago Women Lawyers’ Society (OWLS)

In 1986, almost 90 years after Ethel Benjamin graduated, the Otago Women Lawyers’ Society (OWLS) was formed. OWLS is a professional organisation that celebrates, encourages, and provides a support network for women in law. It works for the advancement of women both in legal studies and the legal profession, in the hope of achieving gender equality. Each year, OWLS holds a series of social and educational events. The Annual New Zealand Law Foundation Ethel Benjamin Commemorative Address has been presented by OWLS since 1997, in honour of Ethel Benjamin. Each year, the address is delivered by a different inspirational woman in law. Former presenters include: New Zealand Court of Appeal Judge, Justice Christine French; the first woman to serve as Prime Minister of New Zealand, Dame Jenny Shipley; and Chief Justice of New Zealand and a Supreme Court Judge, Dame Sian Elias. The address honours and preserves Ethel Benjamin’s pioneering spirit and is attended by many esteemed guests from across New Zealand and overseas. Other events held by OWLS this year include the Pink Ribbon Morning Tea, Mid-Winter Christmas Dinner, Suffrage Day Breakfast, Reproductive Health Panel, and Christmas Lunch. These events bring OWLS members together and provide an opportunity to socialise, learn, and celebrate women.


OWLETS – The Student Branch of OWLS

In 2016, the student branch of OWLS was created, and affectionately named OWLETS. We began as a small committee of 6 law students, aiming to encourage more engagement between law students and the legal profession. We created an OWLETS Facebook group, open to all female Otago law students in second year and above, and free to join. Through this group, we communicate events with our members, and our committee uploads articles about inspirational women in law. Our first event of 2017, “What You Wish You Knew at Law School”, involved an informal discussion between law students and nine members of OWLS about the legal profession. This was an opportunity for law students to meet legal practitioners and academics, and gain invaluable advice about their future. We received very positive feedback from the students that attended, and hope to hold many more of these informative events.

OWLETS provides law students with an excellent opportunity to engage with the legal profession. Otago’s female law students in second year and above can join the OWLETS Facebook group for free. If they wish, these students can also join OWLS for a small yearly membership fee. I would encourage students to do this, as the educational and social events held by OWLS are excellent. For law students in other areas of New Zealand, it would be fantastic to see these students establish similar groups.

For more information about OWLS, please visit their website via: