9 influential women lawyers who shaped the legal industry

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By Sophie Dillon on

Recognising achievements on International Women’s Day

This International Women’s Day, Legal Cheek is paying homage to women icons in law — both past and present. It marks the perfect moment to spotlight the women that have disrupted, pioneered and blazed a path for women in the law in 2024. We’ve created a list of the most inspiring and decorated ladies in the law, from the early 20th century through to today.

Lady Hale

No women in law piece could ever be complete without the inclusion of the former “Beyonce of the Supreme Court” herself, Baroness Brenda Hale. This legal pioneer is the first in many respects. Not only was she the first woman to be appointed a Supreme Court judge in 2009, she was also the first woman to be appointed to the Law Commission in 1984, and the first woman president of the Supreme Court in 2017. Whilst her incredible achievements solidify her role as woman trailblazer in law, she has not shied away from vulnerability.

In her 2021 biography Spider Woman, an ode to her iconic spider brooch, she talks in length about how imposter syndrome affected her throughout her shiny career. Fundamental to the infamous R (on the application of Miller and another)(2017) judgment, Hale cemented her legacy in the Supreme Court as a guardian of the British constitution. Reaching the mandatory retirement age, Hale retired from the Supreme Court in 2020. 

Amal Clooney

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Flickr

A child refugee arriving in the UK with her family from Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War, Amal Clooney is now a renowned international human rights and criminal lawyer.

Clooney advocates for clients in front of the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice, and the European Court of Human Rights. Specialising in representing victims of mass atrocities, including genocide and sexual violence, she currently acts as legal counsel for a group of Iraqi victims from the Yazidi community. The Yazidi community, including Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Nadia Murad, are seeking justice for crimes committed by ISIS.

An iconic and heroic figure for many aspiring lawyers worldwide, Clooney co-founded the Clooney Foundation for Justice in 2016 with her actor husband, George Clooney.

Dame Linda Dobbs

As the first non-white person to be appointed to the senior judiciary, Dame Linda Dobbs is an irrefutable British woman icon in law. Appointed as a High Court judge in the Queen’s Bench Division in 2004, Dobbs served for nine years in the role until 2013.

These days, Dobbs is actively involved in various boards and advisory panels, and she has been awarded six honorary doctorates in law. Currently, Dame Linda holds the position of Senior Fellow in the Law Department at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and serves as the Pro Chancellor at the University of Surrey.

Raffia Arshad

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Ben P L

Paving the way for diversity in the judiciary, Raffia Arshad became the first Hijab-wearing judge in Britain. Appointed in 2020, Arshad practices family law in the Midland Circuit with a professional focus on areas such as child law, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and cases involving Islamic law issues. A mother of three, Arshad is an inspiration to mothers everywhere and an iconic figure paving the way for Muslim representation on the bench.

Georgia Dawson

The first ever woman to take the lead at a Magic Circle firm, Georgia Dawson is a heroine of City law. She was elected senior partner at Freshfields in 2020. While Dawson holds the distinction of being the first woman to lead a Magic Circle law firm, she is not the initial female leader in a prominent City role. Notable predecessors include Lesley MacDonagh, who achieved the milestone in 1995 by becoming the first woman elected as managing partner at a top-ten City firm, Lovell White Durrant (now Hogan Lovells). Additionally, Penelope Warne currently serves as the UK chairman and senior partner at CMS, contributing to the legacy of female leadership in major City players.

Speaking to Legal Cheek in 2023, Dawson offered her advice to women lawyers everywhere.

“I would encourage women seeking a career in law to be brave and seize opportunities as they present themselves. The profession has made progress with representation, but we know there is still much to do; a major part of that stems from younger generations driving the momentum. Be an ally and support each other.”

I. Stephanie Boyce

Making British history as the first Black president of the Law Society of England and Wales’ in 2021, I. Stephanie Boyce is cemented as Black woman icon in the law. A criminal KC by trade, Boyce now acts on the Board of Trustees for Justice following her departure from the Law Society in 2022.

Lubna Shuja

Following on from I. Stephanie Boyce, Lubna Shuja became the first Asian and Muslim president of the Law Society. A qualified solicitor and mediator, Shuja is a keynote speaker and chair of various committees following the end of her Presidency.

Madge Easton Anderson

It would be remiss, in spotlighting British iconic women in the law, if we failed to mention those who paved the way for women in the legal industry. Madge Easton Anderson is without a doubt one of those icons. A Scottish lawyer, Anderson was the first ever woman to be admitted to practise, qualifying as a lawyer in Scotland in 1920, following the introduction of The Sex Disqualification Removal Act (1919). This Act officially provided that no woman should be disqualified from entering into the legal profession, overruling the infamous Court of Appeal judgment of Bebb v Law Society (1914) which upheld the position of the Law Society in refusing to allow women to take qualifying law exams.

Helena Normanton QC

The first ever woman to practise as a barrister, Helena Normanton QC was admitted to the Middle Temple the day after the passing of The Sex Disqualification Removal Act (1919). An advocate for women’s rights and suffrage, Normanton also achieved the milestone of becoming the first married woman in Britain to possess a passport in her maiden name. She was strong in her belief that men and women should maintain separate ownership of their money and property.

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