Feature

Two-year countdown to women in law’s centenary begins

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Time for the First 100 Years project to press the accelerator

Image via Twitter (@First100Years) Caption: This is the photo that started #WomenInLaw project, how did it feel to be the solitary woman?

Tomorrow, it will be two years exactly until we reach 100 years since women could become lawyers, the seminal event which the First 100 Years project has been working tirelessly to commemorate.

Since its inception in 2014, the women in law project has moved towards its 23 December 2019 crescendo, this date marking the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 which allowed women to practice law. The act also allowed women to sit as magistrates, sit on juries, and receive degrees from university on completion of study.

Since then, history has enjoyed pivotal firsts including: Ivy Williams’ accession to the bar in 1922, Rose Heilbron and Helena Normanton taking silk in 1949 and Elizabeth Lane’s appointment to the High Court in 1965. The First 100 Years is digitising these events on its website timeline, as well as archiving video interviews with inspirational women in law. The clips are shared on YouTube.

Screenshots from the First 100 Years’ timeline

In an increasingly diverse profession characterised by its female Supreme Court head and growing female partner percentages, immortalising the struggles of women in a digital museum may be, to some, simple nostalgia. Quick to defend the 1919 act’s lasting significance is Dana Denis-Smith, the First 100 Years project founder. She tells us:

“Improvements have been made in the profession’s strive for parity but looking at the profession narrowly as it is in the present doesn’t give women a feeling of a place in history. The project invests in the story of the women that have come before us, their pasts and their histories.”

As the First 100 Years’ apex approaches Denis-Smith and her team are ready to “press the accelerator”. A busy 2018 calendar includes a very exciting event with female Supreme Court justices from around the world, currently in its planning stages. An event at Mishcon de Reya and more will ensure the project won’t be swallowed up by the centenary celebrations of (some) women getting the right to vote.

The big year for the project will, of course, be 2019. The 100-year anniversary will be commemorated in November at the time of the project’s annual conference; the current plan is to spread it over several days in a festival-style format.

The latest comments from across Legal Cheek

And who better to host the conference than the most recognisable female lawyer in the country? Hale’s accession to the House of Lords and then to the Supreme Court presidency has made her the figurehead of the women in law movement’s recent history. Denis-Smith’s six-year-old daughter recently met her and loves her too: “It’s so special to be able to show my daughter she can go all the way to the top of a profession.”

But Hale might not still be on top by the time we reach the 1919 act’s anniversary: though Hale’s 75th birthday and her statutory retirement date are not until the end of January 2020 she may well have stepped down before then, and before 23 December 1919, due to the sitting timetables.

The feminist icon won’t be leaving behind an all-male bench. Lady Black was sworn in in October and pundits are hopeful that at least one of the three current Supreme Court vacancies will be filled by a woman. This move towards an equal Supreme Court gender split is something most lawyers, former Linklaters solicitor Denis-Smith included, applaud. But, taking a more sceptical approach, she says:

“Hoping for parity is in some ways wishful thinking. Hale will step down in 2020 and it’s all just too short-term. What I’m after is a lasting legacy, changes that aren’t temporary.”

The biggest driver behind the project, Denis-Smith continues, was to instil in female lawyers a sense of belonging to the profession and, with that, a desire to stick around in it. She continues:

“You can only rise to the top if you are involved in the profession and you continue to make a contribution to it. You need to put time in in order to be visible and known; no one’s going to be the next Supreme Court judge if they’re hiding. Don’t disconnect and assume the profession is for men: change starts with the feeling one can achieve it.”

The digital museum which the First 100 Years is building will be donated to the British Library in 2019; but this does not mark the end of the project. The charity which underpins the project, called Spark21, has far wider objectives — including art, research and scholarships — than just the 1919 act.

The centenary project has been a great way to launch the First 100 Years, Denis-Smith says, because it is “a simple way of focusing the mind, as it’s easier to measure success when you have a deadline”. With a whole host of centenaries on the horizon, such as the first female solicitors and barristers, First 100 Years has plenty more it wants to celebrate.

The First 100 Years’ project greatly appreciates all the donations it receives. If you’d like to support the charity, you can do so via its website.

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14 Comments

Charlotte Proudman

This is about me.

Anonymous

I know a good female lawyer.

Anonymous

Are you so desperate for articles that you are writing about anniversaries that are two years away?

Trumpenkrieg

She’s clearly trolling.

LL and P

Although I don’t want to be in agreement with Mr Trumpenkreig, the writers at LC are clearly trolling us with this article.

Trumpenkrieg

Stop countersignalling me you cuck.

Jones Day Partner

Likewise.

Anonymous

i hate the gdl

Anonymous

The GDL hates you too.

Anonymous

In other news it is nearly 82 years until 2100.

Anonymous

“In other news” is a peculiar turn of phrase.

Anonymous

I have special Christmas undergarments.

Anonymous

No mention of Dame Margaret Kidd? UK’s first female KC.

Frustrated Writer

Tom sat alone in Gino’s café, stirring his chai latte with a small slightly browned spoon and staring aimlessly out of the window. He was waiting for a meeting with his Roll on Friday contact. It was mid morning, so the café was quiet, the stream of tradesmen who called in for their morning tea and bacon roll had long gone, and the lunchtime crowd had yet to appear. Tom had been surprised and relieved when Charlotte had messaged him the night before asking to meet at last. Her tone had been different, more urgent this time, bordering on insistent. He could tell things would progress today, and hoped he would be getting the offer he wanted, and needed. It was a little awkward when Charlotte had suggested meeting in the café that he had frequented so many times with Alex and Katie, and he prayed that neither would appear. He could not understand why she had asked for this place out of everywhere in London, but Tom could only imagine that it had some ironic reviews that placed it highly on Yelp or some such app. Tom did not go in for such things. That was more Katie’s bag.

Meanwhile at Legal Cheek HQ, Alex was still upset the day after the presentation. He sat on the office sofa, his bed for the previous night, rocking gently and sobbing. He tried not to be too loud, as he didn’t want Katie to see him upset.

Alex’s mobile had rung non stop since Tom’s speech. True to their generation, most of the young people in the audience had tweeted, Instagrammed and uploaded to Facebook the pictures of Alex in his various stages of drunkenness. The whole world had seen them. There were even memes of Alex doing the rounds.

The sponsors, of course, were not happy. Alex had ignored his phone as it pinged non-stop with voicemails from angry representatives of third rate law firms and bar conversion courses. He hoped he could sit silently and wish this whole episode away. Unfortunately, as hard as he tried, he could not change the past. He cursed himself for misjudging Tom, who had always been such a kind and gentle soul.

Katie broke the silence. She had not spoken since she had arrived at the office, her face as ever glued to her phone. “Alex, are you ready to go?” she asked, in her best sympathetic tone. She knew that she had to be gentle with him for once, lest he do something he regretted. She could not stop him this time, not without Tom. Also, she’d just had a manicure, and would never do anything to jeopardise her French tips.

Alex looked up with bloodshot eyes, momentarily trying to recall what she was referring to. As he remembered, the clouds on his mood began to part. “Ah yes, the meeting!”. He stood up too quickly, getting a head rush which caused stars to form behind his eyes. Katie jumped up from her chair, prepared to grab Alex if he fell. Composing himself, the duo headed out of the office towards their meeting point.

Tom had almost finished his chai latte, and was considering whether to get his second. Having assessed carefully his options, he concluded that the risk of having to relieve himself in the alley behind Gino’s was not worth it. He would wait for Charlotte.

The bell above the café’s door rang as it opened. Tom looked up, expectantly, but knew immediately that it was not who he was waiting for. It was Katie, with Alex in tow. The worst case had happened. Tom looked around, but could see no hiding place the sparse café, aside from diving under the cheap plastic chair. That would however provide little cover for his large form.

Katie and Alex scanned the café, eventually turning to see Tom, the only patron. Alex bristled. “What are YOU doing here?” he asked, through clenched teeth.

Tom’s face turned a shade of deep crimson. “I’m having a meeting if you must know. Let’s be civil. Our paths may cross in future”.

Alex gave Tom a death stare. “Civil? I think the chance to be civil was ended by you not me you kilt wearing, haggis munching..” he was cut off by Katie raising her palm to his face before he could say anything worse. It was her reflex from deleting so many comments, that anything even remotely offensive had to be blocked.

“Seriously, you are such typical men” she said, rolling her eyes. “All anger and testosterone. Can’t you just be like women, and talk things out when you don’t like each other?”

Her comment did little to appease either. Alex ignored Katie, adopting an aggressive stance towards Tom, his eyes wide in anger. “I hope our paths won’t cross. In fact, I will see to it that no legal news site will ever take you on. And why would they want you. All you’re good at is useless retention rate articles and thinly veiled attempts to disguise your trawl of attractive women’s Instagram feeds!”

Tom restrained himself from jumping over the table and throttling Alex. His former boss really knew what buttons to push. “If you must know, Alexander, I’m meeting with Roll on Friday now. They’re making me a huge offer”.

There was a brief period of silence. Tom smugly folded his arms as the comment settled in. Katie’s expression changed. “You’re meeting Roll on Friday? Can I ask who?” she asked, her voice uncertain.

Tom smirked. “Not that it’s any of your business, her name is Charlotte. She’s dating my mate Jeremy”.

Katie looked uncomfortable, looking down at her Gucci ankle boots as she spoke in an uncharacteristically weak voice. “I’m Charlotte. I’ve been messaging you.”

Tom and Alex both looked stunned, a thousand thoughts running through the minds of each.

It was Tom who spoke next. He had in an instant changed from bold arrogance to the picture of deflation. “What, how? But why did you change your name?” he tried but failed to hide his emotions as he continued. “What about you and me?”

Katie cleared her throat and looked around the café. “I never use my real name when I date men. I also have a different phone number. I even have fake social media profiles. I don’t want my friends to find out I am in a relationship, they would kill me if they knew I was letting myself be objectified as a girlfriend”. She bit her lip. “That’s why we would never work, Tom”.

It all made sense now to Tom. Charlotte, or Katie, as it turned out, had never actually confirmed where she worked. He had just assumed, so keen was he for it to work out.

“Sorry, I guess I really messed up”. Katie began sobbing, but neither man cared, as they processed the information.

Alex looked into the middle distance as he gave his take. “I could have been away from here by now. But you messed it up. Both of you. I can never work again after what you did Tom. I turned down the offer because I thought I had a mole at roll on Friday. I could have been happy!” he blinked visibly as his mind raced. “Maybe… maybe.. it’s not too late..” he darted out of the door, leaving it to slam loudly.

Tom watched on. It was over. He could not return to Legal Cheek now after humiliating Alex. Roll on Friday would never want him either. Katie would not want him. He was out of options. He considered his future as a tailor. Perhaps that wouldn’t be so bad?

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