Women lawyers are being badly under-represented in key roles before the country's two highest courts, new research has found.

The findings have triggered concerns among the legal fraternity and fears women could be put off entering the profession.

Funded by the New Zealand Law Foundation and carried out by the New Zealand Bar Association, the research shows only 27 per cent of lead counsel appearances before the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court are women.

This was despite an equal number of female and male lawyers practising in New Zealand, alarming industry leaders.

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The overall figure drops to just 16 per cent female representation when the Crown Law Office is excluded from the research data.

The data was drawn from around 400 cases involving an oral hearing in the Court of Appeal per year, and around 100 delivered judgments in the Supreme Court per year.

"The most shocking aspect is the absence of any material improvement over the six years that the study covers," co-author Jenny Cooper said.

"This demonstrates the fallacy of the argument that it is just a matter of time and gender inequality will take care of itself.

"Active measures are needed to overcome entrenched attitudes that deprive women of opportunities to prove themselves as advocates."

Data from the Queen's Counsel shows about 9 per cent of appearances by QCs in New Zealand are women and overall there is an 80:20 male to female split.

The Court of Appeal Building on Molesworth Street in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The Court of Appeal Building on Molesworth Street in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Co-author Gretta Schumacher said a shortage of women in senior advocacy roles will discourage young women from entering or remaining in the law profession.

"Both male and female juniors need to have opportunities to work with and learn
from senior female advocates.

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"We need to make conscious efforts as a profession to ensure that advocacy is not seen as a male preserve," Schumacher said.

New Zealand Bar Association president Clive Elliot QC said the research findings were stark and disappointing.

While many lawyers thought there was a gender imbalance for higher court legal representation, the findings clearly confirmed it, he said.

"There has been a focus on trying to address the issue through gender equitable briefing, but clearly the legal profession needs to do more, and move more quickly in order to create fairness and opportunity for women barristers and solicitors," he said.

Earlier this year the New Zealand Law Society announced Dame Silvia Cartwright would chair a regulatory working group to look at the processes for reporting and taking action on harassment and inappropriate behaviour in legal workplaces.

In May, an examination of the legal fraternity by the New Zealand Law Society found one in five lawyers had been sexually harassed in the workplace.

The same results showed about one in three female lawyers had been sexually harassed at some time during her career.

In June, Dame Margaret Bazley released an 89-page report into the sexual harassment allegations at law firm Russell McVeagh.

Bazley found a "work hard, play hard" culture of excessive drinking was to blame for the harassments and noted failings in the firm's governance and policies.