Does the future of law have no place for women?

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By Diane Burleigh on

Over 50% of new entrants to the legal profession may be women, but its higher echelons remain dominated by men — as a recent conference on the future of law demonstrated. Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) boss Diane Burleigh reports.


When I started on all this, my year group at university, and then at evening classes for my part-time London external degree course, was about 30 people. About six were women. Already there was determination for change. My school friends and I had burned our bras years before; the world was our oyster. It never occurred to us that we couldn’t achieve whatever we set out to achieve. We knew that the next year, and the year after, and the one after that, would see more women coming into the professions, and so into the law.

So it proved to be. Yes, there was many a skirmish along the way. I do hope no woman is now quizzed, as I was on asking about partnership (which I got), if I was really serious or only working for the pin money? And the wonderful Eileen Pembridge, on discovering that lady Council members of the Law Society had to miss a considerable amount of a Council meeting if she needed to pee because the Ladies was situated at the far side of the Chancery Lane building, whereas the men could nip next door, used the Gents, causing such consternation that a new Ladies was quickly constructed near the debating chamber.

Yes, we’ve come such a long way. The Women Lawyers Forum was disbanded years ago — no need, we’re doing so well — and the numbers of women coming into the profession has soared, so that now well over 50% of all new lawyers are women (in the case of CILEx, over 80%). Hurrah!

Or so I thought, until a week or two to ago, when I was brought up short, and left wondering if, at the end of my career, I am leaving a whole new generation to fight the battles I thought had been won.

A couple of weeks ago I attended, indeed had the privilege of speaking at, a really fabulous conference. I make the point of saying how truly excellent it was, because what follows, while a criticism, should not distract from the value of the conference then, or put anyone off from attending the next one. The Modern Law Conference. Note its name. It brought together leading entrepreneurial lawyers to talk about the new legal landscape post-big bang of alternative business structures (ABS) licensing and how their firms are prospering, with investment bankers and venture capitalists telling us why law firms make for good investment, and what they are looking for in a good firm. So many lessons to learn about law firm management in the 21st century, a surprising amount relying on good old fashioned virtues of professionalism, customer service, and decent modern man and resource management.


Looking at the programme, I became mildly concerned. 29 speakers…six women, 23 men. Ouch. Then there was the pop-up stand advertising the Modern Law Review: four portraits, four men staring back at me. Are there really no more modern women in the modern law?

I broached my concern with the organiser, who was both perplexed (at my noticing?) and then mortified. I do ask women, she said, but they don’t respond. *Sigh*. How often over the years have I heard that one! Sure, there will be the odd one who hates public speaking, just as some men do — but find me a successful woman and I’ll show you someone desperate to talk, to share, to promote her business, just like any man. Or, is it really that the state of women in the law (and also it would seem in finance and banking) is so perilous that there really are no women about?

I was also somewhat taken aback by a pop up stand advertisement for LEGALEX 2014 “The National Legal Exhibition and Conference”, supported by the Law Society and a host of others. A sea of male faces; 16 of them…no, on closer inspection, 15, and one woman. So I checked the web site. 61 speakers over two days…12 women among them. The A5 marketing leaflet has eight men on the front cover…four men on page three, oh, and another four men on page four. Even the photo shots of last year’s conference are primarily of men.

As far as their publicity and speaker line-up is concerned, the message from these two events — billed as showcasing the now and future of law and the legal professions — is that there is no place for women, definitely not in senior positions, or in positions to be movers and shakers, entrepreneurs and leaders.

Such tosh. And if women are having it bad, I know that colleagues from ethnic minority groups have it harder. With the exception of Justice Minister Shailesh Vara, not a single ethnic minority speaker at the Modern Law Conference. And of the 64 at LEGALEX, only six.

I’m depressed. How can there have been so little progress in all my years in this wonderful profession? Did I and my peers just get tired, or lazy? Have we allowed the new generations to think that it’s all sorted? Have we allowed ourselves to be dulled by the few (and at one time increasing) successes, or have we unwittingly pulled the ladder up behind us?

I’ve no idea what the answer is. Perhaps you do. Shall we talk?

Diane Burleigh is the chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx). She will be retiring at the end of the year after 37 years working in the law. The advertisement to find a successor to her is here.

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