updated on 07 March 2023
Reading time: eight minutes
Here’s to strong women, may we know them, may we raise them, may we be them. Strong women have shaped the legal industry into what it is today, with women now accounting for 53% of solicitors in the UK. However, of these 76,933 female solicitors, just 13.8% are partners at firms. Women may be becoming solicitors at three times the rate of men, but there’s evidently still work to be done to secure the promotion, retention and recognition these women deserve.
Women have been vying for their place within the legal profession for well over 100 years: in 1878, Janet Wood became the first woman to complete (but not be granted) a law degree in England, achieving first-class honours from the University of Cambridge; and, in 1888, Elizabeth Orme became the first woman to officially graduate with a bachelor of laws (LLB). However, it took until the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in 1919 for women to be legally allowed to practise law. Once these doors opened it was Carrie Morrison who, like Janet Wood, had received a first-class-honours degree from Cambridge in 1922, became the first woman to be admitted as a solicitor in England.
Those first pioneers paved the way for women to enter the legally industry. Today, hundreds, if not thousands of incredible women have made history for their achievements within law but to mark International Women’s Day, we’ve narrowed it down to just three.
I. Stephanie Boyce
In 2021, I. Stephanie Boyce became the sixth female and first person of colour to become the president of the Law Society. Boyce was admitted as a solicitor in 2002, joined the Law Society’s council in 2013 and became deputy vice president in 2015, but the road to her success was anything but easy. Boyce battled obstacle after obstacle throughout her education and career, and had it not been for her formidable determination she wouldn’t have secured the incredible career she has today.
Educated in the US, Boyce graduated high school a year late after being held back for the ‘twang’ in her accent which teachers believed to be a speech impediment. On returning to the UK, a year older than many other university applicants, she was told her American education couldn’t be converted to the English grading system and she therefore didn’t have the grades required to attend university. Nevertheless, she persisted and undertook an access to education course to attain the qualifications needed to study law at university in the UK. After numerous applications Boyce secured a training contract with Horwood & James LLP, but on completion decided to leave the firm to pursue a career as a litigator.
Boyce has worked as a postwoman, a gardener and even for British Rail. She’s been made redundant twice and was told by a legal recruiter that she’d never get a place at a City firm. However, “the more the doors shut”, Boyce said, “the more people told me I couldn’t, the more I became determined that I could”.
Speaking to the First 100 Years, Boyce said: “I even had people tell me I didn’t look like a solicitor, didn’t sound like a solicitor.” These comments only made her work harder, and her determination shaped the success she is today.
When Boyce first applied to become the Law Society’s vice president in 2015, she was unsuccessful. In fact, she applied three more times, and it was only on her fourth application that she was offered the job and became the first Black person ever to hold the position.
Throughout her career, Boyce has taken time out to volunteer in her local community to boost social mobility. She became chair of the education appeals panel and exclusion, after she’d originally failed her selective exam, to reshape the process and procedures. She’s also been appointed to the HM Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy commissioned independent taskforce to boost socio-economic diversity at senior levels in UK financial and professional services. Most recently, Boyce was appointed as a strategic adviser to Linklaters LLP and now supports the magic circle firm in its diversity, equity and inclusion objectives. Boyce’s main aim throughout her entire career is to leave the legal industry as a more diverse and inclusive place than when she entered.
Lubna Shuja is the seventh woman, first Asian, and first Muslim president of the Law Society. A northern woman who went to state school in Bradford, Shuja never considered that the legal profession could be for her. To Shuja, being a lawyer meant being white, middle class and most likely a man. It wasn’t until Shuja performed exceptionally well in her A levels that a close friend suggested she study law at university. Shuja attained a place at a polytechnic university having gone through clearing, which at the time wasn’t classed as a proper university, and immediately fell in love with the law.
In an interview with Law Simplified, Shuja reflects on receiving a grant to help fund her legal studies, stating “had it not been for that grant, there’s no way I would have been able to afford to go to university”. Getting a place at university, however, was just the beginning. Shuja found it difficult to secure a training contract but eventually received an offer from Fladgate LLP. During her training contract, Shuja worked voluntarily at a law centre one evening a week to help vulnerable members of the community who couldn’t afford to pay for legal advice: “It’s particularly satisfying knowing that you’ve made a positive difference to someone's life, when they might not otherwise have benefitted from any help.”
After qualifying, Shuja represented many legal aid clients and volunteered monthly at her local Citizens Advice. In 2007, Shuja set up her own law firm, Legal Swan Solicitors, in Birmingham. She said she’d never dreamed an Asian Muslim woman could become leader of the legal profession: “I have worked incredibly hard to get to where I am, but it’s also thanks to my colleagues who encouraged and supported me to take that journey. Allies are very important throughout life, because they can often see your potential well before you realise it’s there.”
Dana Denis-Smith grew up in Transylvania Romania under the communist regime, which fuelled her passion for justice and original thinking. This passion, led to her creating not one but two leading businesses to empower women in law. Denis-Smith started her career as a journalist in Romania, but her aspirations reached far beyond regional news, and soon she was reporting for the BBC’s world service.
After earning a joint honours in history and international relations from the London School of Economics, Denis-Smith observed that law, like journalism, centred around the power of words and decided to pursue a new academic interest. Working around her hectic life, she studied law part time and, despite being told by her law school that she’d never succeed taking night classes, she secured a role at a magic circle law firm.
However, after joining the legal profession, Denis-Smith had “a sense of loss of freedom”, reflecting that the industry felt “dehumanised”, and as though people paid no part in the work she was doing. She added, “what’s the point in the law if it’s not serving a society filled with people?”. Denis-Smith was the only trainee who was married with family commitments, and the legal industry’s past culture of prioritising work over personal life was unsustainable. It’s at this point she decided to start her own business.
In 2010, every firm was seeking to cut costs, and Denis-Smith had the initiative to utilise the women who were leaving leading law firms because of their intense hours and hired them as consultants for firms to outsource their work to at a lower price. These women were educated and highly skilled but felt let down by the industry’s lack of support for commitment to family life. Denis-Smith’s business Obelisk gave these women a way to continue working without the intense demanding hours. The company now provides flexible legal services to leading companies and law firms through the work of its 1,000 legal consultants who otherwise may have left the industry altogether.
Placing initiative thinking at the forefront of her mind, Denis-Smith continued her entrepreneurial path and founded the First 100 Years in 2014. The project began as a celebration of women’s first 100 years in the legal profession since 1919. Her project has since captured the stories of pioneering women in the legal industry, producing an exhibition, a book, more than 65 films of leading women in law, and most recently a unique piece of art that’s now on display in the UK’s Supreme Court – the first piece of art in the court that represents women. More recently, Denis-Smith launched the Next 100 Years, a new project designed to accelerate the pace of change and improve the visibility of women in law.
A final note
Each of these women should serve as an inspiration to all and inspire lawyers towards the greatness that can be achieved through hard work and determination. To all aspiring lawyers, I say:
be relentless and determined like I. Stephanie Boyce;
know that if you don’t see someone representative of you in a position you want, you can be that person as Lubna Shuja proved; and,
show initiative like Dana Denis-Smith.
These women have made the legal industry a better place, and you can too.
Want to read further on the drive towards equality and diversity in law? Read this LCN Says by Dana Denis-Smith.
Niamh Gray (they/them) is a content and engagement coordinator at LawCareers.Net