Sally Dowling, the first woman NSW Director of Public Prosecutions,  is a “workaholic” and one of the “outstanding women barristers” of her day, according to colleagues, but is just the start of the gender shift needed in law.

Ms Dowling, who has appeared as Deputy Senior Crown Prosecutor in complex and high-profile appeals in the Court of Criminal Appeal and the High Court of Australia, was recently appointed to the state’s second-highest legal job, replacing Lloyd Babb, SC.

The former high school student dropout has led over 300 appeals in cases of murder, manslaughter, fraud and other serious indictable offences. Prior to criminal law, she also worked as a barrister in areas of commercial equity, intellectual property and insolvency. 

 “[She’s] conscientious, considerate and a bit of a workaholic,”  said Karen Walker-Flynn, a barristers’ clerk at Wardell Chambers, Dowling’s most recent workplace, where she worked closely with the Sydney silk.  

“She has a wonderful work ethic. She’s one of the outstanding women barristers in law.

“I think she is extremely fair,  she listens to everybody… takes it all in.”  

Just appointing women in roles that have traditionally been held by men is not transformative.

Dowling is also the only NSW DPP to have not finished high school, having dropped out of North Sydney Girls High School in year 11. She completed the HSC three years later at TAFE.    

Ms Dowling’s ascent into the role, which is second only to the Attorney General in terms of legal stature, marks an important moment “symbolically and culturally” for young women in the early stages of their legal careers, according to UTS law professor Katherine Biber.

She added women in senior roles can inspire younger women in the early stages of their legal career.     

“Women or girls… can aspire in a way that’s more bold and ambitious,” she told Central News.    

However, Professor Biber said Dowling’s new appointment was “not the end of the project” for women in law.

“Just appointing women in roles that have traditionally been held by men is not transformative,” she said. 

 She said for the effects of women in leadership legal positions to “filter down through society”, structural and procedural changes must take place in our legal system.     

[She] has shown outstanding leadership and legal skills.

The majority of legal professionals in Australia are women. Despite this, women are still underrepresented in senior legal positions. Only 25.8 per cent of partners in law firms are women and the number of female commonwealth judges has only risen by 12 per cent over the last   decade.    

Ms Dowling is the fourth person to hold the 10-year appointment.

Attorney-General Mark Speakman said:  “Ms Dowling has a distinguished background in criminal law and has shown outstanding leadership and legal skills while arguing cases. 

The Director of Public Prosecutions was established in 1987 to ensure prosecutorial decisions are made free from political influence. It performs an independent statutory role, ‘representing the community in court’.     

Dowling was the Council assisting the Special Commission of Inquiry into the drug ‘ice’ for the NSW state government. The inquiry recommended the decriminalisation of possession and use of illicit substances.

Mr Speakerman did not recommend decriminalising ice following the inquiry. However, separate proposals expanding the geographic placement of drug courts have been implemented by the government.   Former DPP Nicolas Cowdery, QC, also had similar views about the decriminalisation of drugs.    

Professor Biber  said drug law reform is “stuck politically” and is unlikely to change despite Dowling’s experience and knowledge.

Main photo of Sally Dowling (supplied). Court scene by wp parz/Flickr.