A former law firm receptionist who left school at 15 has been named the first woman to become Australia's highest ranking judge.

The government said on Tuesday that High Court Justice Susan Kiefel will in January become the senior judge on the seven-judge bench with the retirement of Chief Justice Robert French.

The 62-year-old will become the 13th Chief Justice of Australia since the court first sat in 1903.

In announcing her appointment, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described Kiefel as an inspiration and a reminder to lawyers that their own office secretary might one day become Australia's most senior judge.

Kiefel is currently one of three women on the High Court bench and the longest serving judge after French.