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Today marks 100 years since women could become lawyers

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Rose Heilbron QC — image credit: National Portrait Gallery

Today marks 100 years of women in law in England and Wales.

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 received royal assent a century ago, on 23 December, dismantling the barrier to women practising as solicitors and barristers in the UK. The Act also allowed women to sit as magistrates, sit on juries and receive degrees from university on completion of study.

Since then, there have been some pivotal firsts, including: Ivy Williams’ accession to the bar in 1922, Rose Heilbron and Helena Normanton taking silk in 1949, Elizabeth Lane’s appointment to the High Court in 1965 and more recently, Lady Hale becoming the first woman Lord of Appeal in 2004, first female justice of the UK Supreme Court in 2009 and the court’s first female president in 2017.

Dana Denis-Smith, a former Linklaters lawyer who founded the First 100 Years project to commemorate today’s anniversary, has been leading the celebrations. She said:

“I think the last 100 years have been a revolution for the legal profession — from one woman (Helena Normanton, being admitted to Middle Temple on 24 December 1919, as a student barrister) to women making up a majority on the practising solicitor side and over a third of all barristers. It’s amazing to think how much has been achieved.”

Yet, our increasingly diverse profession — characterised by growing female partner percentages at some firms — still leaves much to be desired. Law Society president Simon Davis said today:

“The profession has made great strides over the past hundred years — with women now making up 50.8% of practising solicitors and 62.1% of new entrants. However, women are still not reaching senior positions in sufficient numbers and only make up 30.1% of partners in private practice. Our research [last year] identified many obstacles to women’s career progression including unconscious bias, a difficult work-life balance and networking opportunities being male focused… for real change to take root, firms across the country must put the right policies in place and work together to build a more diverse workplace for the next generation.”

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This year we’ve seen leading legal figures recall their experiences of sexism in their careers, as part of the First 100 Year’s ‘legal pioneer’ series.

Cherie Booth QC recalled being told by Lord Denning that “the bar really isn’t the place for women”, while the Supreme Court’s Lady Justice Arden was advised not to pursue the bar because solicitors would never instruct a woman. Meanwhile, Dame Elizabeth Gloster, a former Court of Appeal judge, recalled being turned down for tenancy because “the wives of members of chambers wouldn’t like it… in case their husbands make passes at you or you seduce them.”

But today is cause to celebrate. And just this autumn Lady Hale predicted gender parity among the judiciary by 2033. Meanwhile, Denis-Smith summed up her vision for the next 100 years:

“The biggest message to take into the Next 100 Years is that women in the legal profession are no longer a lone voice. Sure, there are still situations in which we find ourselves the only woman in the room and still company boards that don’t have a woman, but overall we have a whole safety net of like-minded women striving to achieve on an equal playing field. This is no small thing as we need to build on this confidence of past achievements to consolidate the place of women across the legal profession — not as newcomers but as a force for change. Women have to become comfortable to work with other women in a collaborative way as we move from the ‘rock star’ culture that surrounded outstanding pioneers like Lady Hale, to the ‘rock group’ of good lawyers working together to create a better and more inclusive work culture in the legal profession.”

Onto the next 100 years! ⚖️

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47 Comments

Anonymous

Good to see focus on the positive contribution of women to the legal profession. I found the negative allegations (mostly about males) rather sad.

(12)(36)

anon

Sad but relevant to the context.

(28)(1)

Anonymous

But not the context here.

(3)(24)

Anon

It is relevant to the context here as it forms the backdrop to the progress of women in the legal profession.

(36)(0)

Anonymous

That isn’t the context here.

Anonymous

The backdrop isn’t relevant to the context here though.

Anon

Yes, it is. It is part of the relevant narrative.

Anonymous

No not, the context here is the centenary of women being able to become lawyers. It’s a celebration. Negative comments in this context are sad.

Anon

They are sad but relevant to the history of the matter. Remember that the ascent of women in the legal profession has notably been in the teeth of significant obstacles, so this forms a part of the context. Indeed, to ignore those difficulties would be perverse and intellectually dishonest, and would give an incomplete picture of the narrative.

Anonymous

Remember that the ascent of women in the profession has been with the support of male members of the profession, without whose support, often in the teeth of significant obstacles, change wouldn’t have been possible. Strangely, this positive impact isn’t often mentioned by those focussing on alleged negativity relating to men. But to ignore it would be perverse and intellectually dishonest, and would give an incomplete picture of the narrative. That said, the positive contribution of males isn’t relative in the context here, which is to celebrate 100 years of women in the profession, in the same way in which negative comments about males in this context are sad and irrelevant.

Anon

Women have undoubtedly struggled in the last 100 years to make progress in the legal profession. And yes, men have done their bit, especially latterly, to assist with this. Both facts are relevant to the narrative.

Emma

Dec 26 2019@3:03pm: agreed. It would be like celebrating 100 years of female suffrage without discussing the struggle women went through to get the vote.

Anonymous

Or discussing 100 years of female suffrage without discussing the struggle men went through to get women the vote Emma. Both irrelevant in the context here though.

Anon

Lady Arden has explained that the rubric for the 100 year celebration is “the rise of women in the law and their struggles to achieve that success”. So the matters referred to, whilst sad, are explicitly relevant.

Anonymous

Arden was wrong if that is true, and demonstrates unconscious bias in not mentioning the contribution of males to women being able to practice law. The context is the 100th anniversary of women being able to practice law, not of women struggling. So the positive contribution of males isn’t relative here, in the same way that negative comments about males in this context are sad and explicitly irrelevant.

Anon

Remember that Lady Arden – who was interviewed as part of the celebration – probably knows more about what the whole thing concerns than you.

You sound like you are stamping your feet because you don’t approve of the rationale for the celebration. But that doesn’t affect what is relevant in this context.

Anonymous

Lady Arden was wrong for the reasons shown, so not a good example of someone who knows more.

No amount of foot-stamping will change the fact that the positive contribution of males to women being able to practice law and negative comments directed at men are irrelevant and sad in the context here.

Anon

You are in no position to gainsay Lady Arden’s knowledge of the celebration’s rubric. She is a Supreme Court Justice, intimately involved in constructing the event. The fact that everyone interviewed, and every related article, has included commentary on the struggles of women to rise in the legal profession is evidence of that rubric. I hope you are not a lawyer, because one of the main skills is the realistic assessment of evidence. And the weight of the evidence here is against you. I am afraid you still sound like you are stamping your feet because you don’t like the prescribed rationale of the celebration, but that will not change the fact that these matters, whilst sad, are explicitly relevant. Back to your second year exam revision.

Anonymous

Lady Arden was wrong for the reasons evidenced, including displaying unconscious bias, so despite her qualifications I am afraid she has been successfully gainsayed on this occasion if your quote is true.

No amount of foot-stamping will change the fact that the positive contribution of males to women being able to practice law (which is strangely not often mentioned, including by you) and negative comments directed at men are explicitly irrelevant and sad in the context here.

If I’m not a lawyer or am studying for second year exams and you are a lawyer it makes it even worse that you’ve lost this argument so badly.

Anon

The evidence is firmly against you. Back to your exam revision!

Anonymous

The evidence firmly supports me – its sad and explicitly irrelevant to use a celebration of womens’ achievement in the law to criticise men.

If I’m studying for exams and you’re not it makes the beating you’re taking in this argument even worse.

Anon

Stamp, stamp, stamp!

Back to your revision!

Anonymous

Yes, it’s true – its sad and explicitly irrelevant to use a celebration of womens’ achievement in the law to criticise men.

Hi

And anyway, the problem is women in the profession deciding to marry rich men, having children and then, heaven forbid, deciding they want to work less because they don’t need or want the money. And Lady Arden came from a family of multi-generational lawyers, so she can hardly talk about social mobility issues.

101 years?

Is it just 100 years now?! I was under the impression this was all done and dusted last year.

(5)(2)

Anon

Nope, it’s today.

(2)(0)

Happy Housewife

Gave up the Bar to spend more time raising my children.

No more sexual harassment, getting screamed at by senior members of chambers or bullied by the childless and unmarried alcoholic ones.

You couldn’t pay me enough to go back.

(18)(5)

Anonymous

It’s just as bad for women!

(3)(1)

Dodgeball Champ

Sorry you were not successful and decided to throw in the towel. Good luck watching This Morning.

(1)(2)

Anonymous

People leave the bar for all sorts of reasons – ‘giving up’ isn’t usually one of them. Gender discrimination isn’t either, although it is overstated as a reason why people leave.

(2)(1)

Joe Mwangi

Women lawyers most understood.Time to put record is now.

(0)(0)

Anne-Lize Lourens

What an achievement for women in our profession. I’ve been part of the bar for 14 years now as a female practitioner and love how things have beautifully developed over these years. Proud to be part of this amazing history and looking forward to the next 100 years. Salute to women empowerment 🥂

(6)(8)

Lucy

What an achievement and I joined the profession this year itself. 🎉💃

(2)(4)

Anonymous

Life becomes so much simpler the second you realise just how much women hate other women.

They don’t actually care about the struggles of other women. They just pretend to, so that they personally benefit.

No-one hates a young woman trying to enter the profession more than an older woman already established in the profession.

(29)(9)

Tywin

Anyone who must say “I am a Feminist” is no true Feminist.

(7)(1)

Lord Harley

It is also very difficult to make a go at it as a disabled, titled, educated and broadly experienced solicitor advocate.

(14)(0)

Adam

Excellent article. This is amazing progress – going from an all white male to a more inclusive, diverse and majority female profession.

(11)(4)

Anonymous

Still a lot to be done with regards to inclusion and diversity though in areas other than gender.

Is a move towards a ‘majority female’ profession really amazing progress? It doesn’t sound very diverse. While this may be the agenda for some I would have thought true progress and diversity would mean equality of ability-based opportunity.

(3)(0)

Anon

Agreed. It should be about merit. We don’t need any other drivers. The public deserve the best. And if that is to be offered by a woman who went to the local comprehensive school, then so be it.

(9)(0)

Anonymous

Indeed. Or a man who went to the local comprehensive school.

(0)(0)

N Struct

Though with a judiciary heavily geared to white male public school types, it makes rational sense to pick a white, male, public school educated barrister for representation, all other things being equal. Diversity is great for other people’s cases.

(3)(0)

Anonymous

And white female public school types.

Anon

Great. Now we need a similar ‘movement’ addressing the nepotism in law (particularly at the bar).

(7)(0)

Anon

I fail to see how women being allowed to be stressed, overworked, forced to deal with unreasonable clients, idiot solicitors and god-awful colleagues, all for a paycheque that will come to late to pay rent and be drained away by chamber fees and taxes, is a good thing. I support female empowerment and all but the bar is not worth it. If you care about women you’ll want less of them here. I assure you it’s for their own good.

(3)(8)

Anonymous

Same for men.

It’s the Bar and the industry that needs to change for everyone, not just one group. That’s the way to diversity and empowerment.

(2)(3)

Whig

For a profession made up of self-employed individuals, why does diversity matter?

(1)(0)

Anonymous

It matters if it benefits the public.

(3)(1)

Comments are closed.

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