Women in law: celebrating the past; changing the future

Women in law: celebrating the past; changing the future

By Rachel Buchanan

Although it is 95 years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 opened the gate for women to become lawyers, it wasn't until three years later in 1922 when the first women solicitors were actually admitted to the Law Society. In those days, this involved completing a running race down Chancery Lane. Carrie Morrison, Maud Crofts, Mary Pickup and Mary Sykes were the first four women admitted (Ivy Williams and Helena Normanton were the first women called to the Bar, also the same year).

Times have changed in the intervening years and now 59.1% of those admitted to the Law Society are women (latest stats from 2011). A problem still exists though; women are entering the profession in their droves but by the top echelons of the profession this percentage is no longer the case. Only around 18% of QCs and 8% of Court of Appeal judges are women and the story isn't any better across the solicitor side of the profession, with the first female CEO of a leading law firm only appointed this year. Women have come a long way in the first 95 years but more is needed.

It was only 30 years ago when women at the top of the profession were lone voices. Dana Denis-Smith, CEO of Obelisk, saw a photograph of the partners of city law firm Herbert Smith (now Herbert Smith Freehills) dated 1982. They had released the photograph to celebrate their centenary but in the middle of the group of 50 or so men was a lone woman; the only visible female presence of the firm. Not dissimilar to other stories of its day, but a lonely position nonetheless. 

Without hearing and collating these individual stories, both past and present, it is difficult to understand what the future of women in the profession really looks like. Without assessing how far we have come, it is hard to stand back and consider what still needs to change. After all, even in 2014, Herbert Smith Freehills is still making news with women firsts; it wasn't until this year that Sonya Leydecker became the first female CEO of leading law firm although they do now have as many as 100 women (21.5%) in their partnership globally.

We cannot escape the fact that women enter the profession in higher numbers than men and, at the current pace, their progression up the partnership ranks remains painfully slow. We are constantly preoccupied by the negligible change in the percentage numbers of women at the top of the legal profession. By setting the debate in a historical context, it is easier to see the rapid rise of women in the profession in the last 30 years as well as how we can affect change in the future.

The First 100 Year’s project is the first ever project dedicated to the women in the legal profession that aims to chart their progress over the last 100 years. It is the most ambitious multimedia project, looking to make accessible to all, information on women in the law in a visual, structured and engaging way. The project is a partnership between Obelisk and the Law Society. The project is aiming to create an interactive and engaging story of professional women that can inspire the generations that are coming through, as well as to record the progress of women in the profession in video interviews that will be a valuable resource in the future.

The project aims to conduct and publish documentary style interviews with at least 100 leading women in the profession over the next five years as well as recording written biographies and photographic content of women pioneers in addition to stories from both men and women of women that have inspired them in their legal careers.

First 100 Years is looking to hear from all members of the profession about women that inspired their career as well as adding to the timeline on the website by discovering law firm heritage including any early pioneers or “firsts” for women that have not yet been included. 

The project is also searching for biographies, photographs and stories of inspirational women across the last 95 years, so please contact the project if you can assist.

Follow First 100 Years on TwitterLinkedIn and Facebook or please email your stories and comments.

First 100 Years is the brainchild of Dana Denis-Smith, CEO of Obelisk and the project is in partnership with The Law Society, with informal support from LexisNexis. The launch date of First 100 Years was chosen as it coincides with International Women's Day and 95 years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 opened the gate for women to become lawyers.

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