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The Great Divide: Women In Law

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About The Author

Rachel Dean (Regular Writer)

Rachel graduated from the University of Leicester with her LLB European Hons in 2010. She is now a trainee solicitor at Lockett Loveday McMahon in Manchester and is due to qualify in May 2016. Her interests lie predominantly in commercial law.

Inequality between men and women is no new social illness. There is a long and tumultuous history of gender inequality across the world and, until fairly recently, the UK was no different.

However, with the appointment of two new female judges to the High Court (one of them being the first ever Asian female to be appointed to such a level) making the headlines last month, coupled with frequent stories about a strive for gender equality in FTSE companies, one could be mistaken for thinking the great divide has been reduced to a far smaller and more manageable partition.

The History of Women in Law

As a young, female professional hoping for a long and successful career, I am indebted to the women who have gone before me - not only in the UK but also across the world - who fought for gender equality.

History is littered with examples of women being mistreated, used, and abused by men and for men. It is hardly surprising, then, that the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett rose up and demanded change. The recent release in cinemas of ‘Suffragette’ is a timely reminder that it was only around 100 years ago that our nation was forced to sit up and take notice of women as equal participants in the democratic process. Indeed, while the female struggle for the vote raged on, a similar battle for equality was taking place within the legal profession.

In the ‘About us’ section, the Law Society details succinctly the history of the profession, and it is interesting to note that the Society itself was founded in 1825. However, it would be another 100 years before women were admitted to the profession, making it the last profession in England (aside from the church) to prohibit the inclusion of women.

Nevertheless, various attempts were made by women to change the status quo throughout this period. Gwyneth Bebb, for example, brought a case against the Law Society calling for women to be allowed to sit the entrance exams to become a solicitor. Sadly, despite sympathy and publicity from the press, the Court of Appeal refused to see the merits of her case, upholding the first instance decision unanimously. Christabel Pankhurst also campaigned for change to the entry requirements of the legal profession. As one of the leaders of the Women’s Social & Political Union, Christabel graduated with a first class law degree from the University of Manchester in 1906 and famously represented herself and others in a court case in 1909, causing a sensation by serving subpoenas on the then Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Home Secretary. Despite their valiant attempts, however, women remained excluded from the profession until 1919 when the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act (the ‘1919 Act’) was introduced.

Thanks to the Suffragette movement and the 1919 Act, women like me are now able to both direct the political governance of our country and enter professional careers. There does, however, still remain somewhat of a divide. A century on from Bebb and Pankhurst’s legacy, has that much really changed in the world of law?

Growing Diversity in the Law

The legal profession has, in recent years, become increasingly diverse, with a notable increase in the numbers of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) lawyers entering law between 1996 and 2006 as well as a tenfold increase in female solicitors since 1984.

However, a recent study by the University of Westminster suggests the profession as a whole remains rather ‘segmented and stratified on gendered, raced and classed lines’ with opportunities and career progression not equally distributed. The law today is still an inherently masculine environment with a culture and work pattern which more often supports male entrants.

Equality and Diversity outside the Law

It is not only the legal profession which struggles with this issue. The lack of women in the top strata of business and politics has also received media attention. In the world of business in particular, this unfortunate situation has prompted the introduction of the Davies Report, an annual report of women on boards. The 2015 annual report, which included the tag line 'balance boards are better boards', makes for some interesting reading. For example, for the first time in the history of the London Stock Exchange there are no all-male boards among the FTSE 100 and only 23 remain in the FTSE 250 compared to 152 all-male boards among the FTSE 350 when the Davies Review began in 2011. Representation of women in FTSE 100 companies is at 23.5% and, whilst this figure is just shy of the 25% target, this constitutes a momentous culture change on the boards of our largest companies over the course of just four years.

In politics too there are calls for greater diversity. The first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons was Nancy Astor in 1919 and even after the Suffragettes successfully won women the vote, the general election in 1929 resulted in only 16 female MPs elected to Parliament. Luckily, as in the legal profession, recent years have seen the numbers of women in Parliament grow, and in 2010 143 of 650 MPs (22%) elected to the Commons were women. Arguably, this number is still too low considering our country’s constitution is more women than men.

If it is not a case of reluctance by young women to move into these professions, perhaps the problem with business and politics as with law is that ‘the environment is very white, middle class, male dominated, and [crucially]…there are some who are reluctant for that to change.

‘All are equal before the law’

The European Convention of Human Rights, enshrined within UK law in the Human Rights Act 1998 protects every citizen’s equality before the law. It is right that all should be equal before the law but, even in this 21st century, we are not equal in the law. Indeed, it was 1995 before a woman (Lesley Macdonagh) was appointed as managing partner in a top City firm, and since this time men have continued to dominate firm management.

Recent statistics show that there are more female students taking law degrees across the country (in 2012 women made up 62.4% of those accepted onto undergraduate law courses) and figures from the Law Society confirm a continued trend for female involvement in the sector early on. Of newly qualified solicitors admitted to the roll in July 2014, three-fifths were women.

The further up the ‘career ladder’ one looks, however, the more the numbers dwindle. Of 130,382 solicitors with practising certificates in the year ending 31 July 2014, less than half (62,844) were women. At the same date there were only around 6% (a total of 7,985) women partners. Among firms themselves, the reality at the top is often male dominated partners meetings, but the tide is slowly beginning to change. In a survey of ‘top firms most list’, Withers has come out on top with a 45% female partnership and Shoosmiths are not far behind with 37% partners being women.

So, whilst I have no doubt that anyone striving to become a partner has a tough road ahead, it seems it is still harder to achieve as a woman. This is despite there being fewer obstacles standing in our way today than even five or ten years ago, and more pioneering women setting the trend for trainees like me.

Sisters are doing it for themselves

Whilst I apologise for any cringes arising from my use of Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin’s lyrics, I do think they are appropriate. Throughout history there have been women who have succeeded in male-dominated professions. Over the last five to ten years, specific attention has been given to women at the top of law firms and, as women have become more prominent in the law, the status quo is starting to shift.

The resurgence of a suffragette-esque movement to represent women in law seems to have begun. The WILL network (Women In Law London) is one such newly formed organisation aimed at supporting women at mid-associate or pre-partnership level. The website notes that ‘the reality is that the legal profession is losing talented women and the trend is not reversing at a sufficient rate’. Firms need to do more, they argue, to improve numbers of women at the top.

Within firms though, women are becoming empowered and are creating networks to support and encourage one another, one example being the DWF WOW network. Across the legal media too there is greater recognition of successful and inspirational women. The Lawyer recently launched a new feature called ‘My Career Story: exploring personality and rationale behind impressive careers each week’. Even before beginning to write this article, I had enjoyed reading about various legal professionals and in particular a number of successful female solicitors and general counsel. Of special note are Laura Carstensen who combined being a partner at Slaughter and May with having a family of six or Nadia Hoosen who, despite leaving the profession at 5PQE, made a return to law in-house and is now legal director at Talk Talk. And then there is Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) Managing Partner Lisa Mayhew, described by The Lawyer as a ‘much needed role model’ for women in law.

As a way of remembering the journey of women in the legal profession, a campaign was launched last year by Dana Denis-Smith (a former international journalist, solicitor and founder of Obelisk Support, a global outsourcing business) called The First 100 Years. In the run up to the centenary celebration in 2019 of the Act which allowed women to enter law, the campaign is aimed at raising awareness both of the history of women’s struggle for equality in the male-dominated sector as well as a looking to the future of women in the law.

The Future

It is clear that change is afoot. As mentioned above, there are organisations which have given thought as to how to attract and retain well qualified women. However, many of the initiatives introduced do not address the professional culture. Considering the discrepancy between women entering the profession and those at the top, there is certainly more to be done before true equality is achieved.

Cherie Blair considers ‘all women should have the chance to have a family and a career’ but for a large proportion of women in law, a desire for a family is one thing that compromises their careers. Whilst we might wish otherwise, women will remain primarily responsible for childbirth and much of the care that stems from having young children. Some women will be happy to give up any further progression in their firms or in-house capacity to take up what I am told is the hardest job of all – being a full time parent. But for others who do want to get back to work and hope to receive the same career progression as their male peers, a greater appreciation of their family circumstances and an increased adaptability to allow them to both be a great mother and a great lawyer is needed.

The new flexible working rights which came in during last year arguably go some way to helping women (and men who are the primary carers) juggle the demands on their time. Indeed, it has been well publicised that many law firms have already or intend to bring in broad flexible working policies which allow earlier finish times or even the ability to work from home. The growing connectivity of our society has undoubtedly influenced this too, allowing lawyers to be contactable at all hours and from any location.

At the start of family life too, the new shared parental leave rights mean that it should in theory be easier for couples to share responsibility of their newborn whilst also getting into the office, if that is what they decide.

Other factors, such as effective procedures for ‘back to work’ interviews after maternity leave, proper team structures to make room for women with families, and a collaborative and supportive cultures within firms, are all things which I consider would promote equality within the law. It is noteworthy that a recent article on The Gazette concerned ‘How to: return to the profession’ and was aimed at both men and women following a career break.


I began this article asking whether the great divide between men and women in business and specifically the law remains, or whether it has, in fact, been reduced to a smaller, manageable partition.

Given that it is just under 100 years since the first women entered the profession I think we are doing pretty well. With numbers of women partners increasing (albeit slowly) as well as a slightly more representative judiciary, change is taking place. It may not be happening at the pace some would want but with such a white middle class male history, diversity in any form was never going to occur overnight.

One thing that greatly encouraged me was the number of women in law who are keen to have both a family and a career. It is their pioneering attitude and challenge to the status quo that I greatly admire. I hope to be able to walk their steps in balancing my own dreams on both counts.

As The Lawyer concluded in its article on Lisa Mayhew, ‘…women are leading the way, but the glass ceiling is still far from shattered’ and for the moment the divide has not yet been bridged. I hope it will not be too much longer before real equality is seen at the top level of law firms.

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Tagged: Legal Careers

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