updated on 07 March 2019
Back when I was practising as a lawyer, I wasn’t aware that before 1919, women weren’t allowed to practise the law. It wasn’t something we were taught. There was very little exposure to the input women had in the law at all, especially on the commercial side. All of our text books were about men who were the geniuses of contract law and I didn’t really come across female lawyers or judges in my studies.
In 2013, I found out that we were approaching the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act becoming law, paving the way for women to become lawyers for the first time. As I learned more about the stories of those first pioneers, I decided to set up The First 100 Years project, which this year celebrates 100 years of women being able to practise law.
When I first started looking at the history of women in the legal profession, I found that the picture was patchy. The information was not easy to find. Portrayals of early women in law were negative and grounded in victimhood. This narrative was not going to be a driver for change.
I wanted the project to inform the next generation of lawyers about their past, to show how important women have been and to reframe aspiring lawyers’ expectation of the future. The project’s first aim was to create a strong library of role models, to discover the female pioneers who had been totally lost to the profession and to create a coherent timeline illustrating the journey of women in law since 1919.
When you look at it in a historic context, you can see the rapid rise of women—now we are almost seeing the feminisation of the profession, with the number of women now entering on the solicitor side outnumbering men.
Whilst considerable progress has been made, however, female representation at the top still lags significantly behind.
According to the Law Society, women now make up 50.1% of practising solicitors, yet only represent 28% of partners in private practice with the figures for equity partners even lower. Statistics from the Bar Standards Board show that only 14.8% of QCs are women.
I think there is huge power in so many women entering the profession, and what they need to do is learn to own their new-found place as the majority player.
This landmark year is a time to reflect on the lessons learned from the female legal pioneers and what their stories tell us about tackling the ongoing barriers to the progress of women in the profession to date. Diversity is not just about what you can see in terms of the race or gender of individuals, it can be found in the details of the challenges and struggles they have experienced to get where they are today. Just seeing the person without understanding their story doesn’t give you a true picture of diversity in the profession.
Unravelling these stories of pioneering women means we can understand the roots of their success. Who were their role models? What support did they get from others? What challenges did they face and how did they overcome them? In their stories are lessons for aspiring lawyers, both men and women alike.
One hundred years ago, the battle was for participation in our legal system. That battle has been won. What we now need is to see equal numbers of men and women in leadership positions, receiving the same remuneration.
I want to see women using history to empower themselves. We should be demanding equal representation and pay. We are no longer asking permission to be let into the partnership or to leadership positions – as we look to the future there should be an expectation that there is room at the top for any woman capable of doing the job.
Our profession needs to look at what is holding us back. Are we doing enough to combat unconscious bias and do we adequately recognise the achievements of women? So often I hear both women and men discussing what is lacking in a woman’s skillset rather than focusing on the positives. Culturally we seem to need our female leaders to be perfect and at the top of their game, whilst mediocre men climb the ranks all the time by simply being capable of doing the job.
We need to understand the impact of the industrial levels of inflexibility present in many law firms to the progression of women. The larger the firm, the greater the problem. Whether it’s the traditional partnership structure, the focus on the billable hour or the inability of firms to accommodate both women and men with caring responsibilities, action is needed. We need to start from the top, unravelling the practices and structures that do not work for women. We must interrogate working conditions to see if they are fit for purpose rather than the expectation being that women should fit into them.
In this centenary year I would like to see us celebrate the hard-won progress of the last 100 years and the stories of those legal pioneers that are so vital in providing a solid, positive platform for the future. But we also need to persist in removing the barriers to women’s progress still built into the legal profession so that women embarking on their careers now can expect to be successful whatever path they choose to take.
Dana Denis-Smith is founder of The First 100 Years project.