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LCN Says

Celebrating 100 years of women solicitors – the drive towards equality and diversity in law

updated on 13 December 2022

December 2022 will mark the centenary of the first woman to be admitted to the Law Society as a solicitor. Carrie Morrison qualified on 18 December 1922, closely followed by Maud Crofts, Mary Pickup and Mary Sykes.

Since those early pioneers began their legal careers 100 years ago, incredible progress has been made with more women entering the legal profession than ever before. Women now outnumber men, making up 53% of practising solicitors.

Despite this progress, women are still unrepresented at the top of the profession. Only 31% of partners in private practice and 18% of King’s Counsel (KC) are women. Only 30% of judges in the high court and above are women and the Supreme Court is once again back to just one female justice out of 12.

Women also face a significant gender pay gap – research by the Next 100 Years found that at the current rate of progress it would take 86 years for women working in the law to achieve pay parity.

There’s no doubt that legal businesses are more conscious than ever of the need to better reflect society and of the benefits that a more representative workforce can bring. Serious efforts are being made to redress the balance, but law firms continue to be held back by the traditional partnership structure and a working culture that’s stuck in the past. So what needs to change?

The rise of flexible working

Post-pandemic, the rise of flexible working forced firms to adopt new ways of operating that have been hugely beneficial to women with caring responsibilities.

The long hours culture has always been a sticking point for those with family commitments, leading many women to leave private practice at associate level. While the majority of firms now offer hybrid working, there persists an ‘inflexible flexibility’ at top firms in particular, driven by perceived client demand, the tyranny of the billable hour and a focus on inputs rather than outputs.

We must be more innovative. That means training management to manage a flexible workplace in a positive way. We need to give lawyers options, with job shares, part-time work, compressed or staggered hours, as well as the option of flexitime.

New routes into law

Challenging the convention that there’s only one route into a legal career, with a linear path from training to leadership that takes place between the ages of 21 and 50, plays an important part in improving diversity in the profession. Both the apprentice route to qualifying as a solicitor, and the Solicitors Qualifying Exam, were introduced as a bid to increase accessibility, diversity, and social mobility and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives has for many years provided a route into the law for those who didn’t go to university.

Embracing those who’ve taken these different routes into the law, as well as career changers and returners who’ve taken career breaks, will benefit women and improve diversity across the board.

Diversity in leadership

Diversity in leadership sets the tone for the whole organisation. Women who make it to the top, according to a 2022 McKinsey report, are twice as likely as senior-level men to spend time on diversity, including focusing on recruiting employees from underrepresented groups.

We see women in senior positions driving change in their own organisations. In our recent Women Who Will report celebrating women in law, we highlighted among others the work of Emma Haywood, associate general counsel at Babylon Health who has mentored 20 aspiring lawyers over her career and is a vocal advocate for flexible working. Shoosmiths partner Helen Burnell founded spHERe, a network for female founders and women in law as well as forging the firm’s partnership with The Gender Index, addressing wider gender disparity across the UK.

Role models continue to be important for women coming up. A lack of visibility serves to reconfirm existing biases and exacerbates imposter syndrome, whereas visible role models at all levels demonstrate what’s possible. Rather than pulling up the ladder behind them, good female leaders should take every opportunity to shine a light on their own experiences as well as championing other women in law.

There’s still some way to go before the profession truly gets to grips with a problem that sees too many talented women unable to progress in their careers or drop out of the law altogether. The next generation are demanding change and with the ability to attract and retain talented lawyers crucial to a firm’s success, the need to create more inclusive working cultures will only become more urgent.

The first generation of women lawyers were clear about what they wanted. After qualifying Maud Crofts went on to educate women on their legal rights saying: “We women want not privileges but equality”. A hundred years on, for women in the legal profession equality remains an aspiration but with so many demanding change, I’m optimistic we can take the great strides needed to get there.

Dana Denis-Smith is founder of the Next 100 Years and CEO of Obelisk Support.