At the start of the 19th century, there was no such person as a woman solicitor. Women faced a series of frustrating compromises when it came to their working and academic lives. They could study for degrees, but they couldn’t actually take exams, or graduate. They could—rarely—work in law, but they did not have the choice to accelerate their careers to the position of solicitor.
In 1913, a landmark legal challenge was mounted against the Law Society, after it refused to allow four women to do the exams needed to qualify as solicitors. The case, named Bebb v Law Society, would see the Law Society’s decision upheld. The judge ruled that women were not allowed to be solicitors “unless and until” women became solicitors – saddling them with an impossible paradox. The woman who offered her name to the case was called Gwyneth Bebb.
Had Bebb not died tragically a few months after a difficult stillbirth, she would have been the first woman to be called to the bar. This was all made possible when, in 1919, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act made it possible for women to work in law: the first major step in allowing women to be solicitors.
Nearly ten years after Gwyneth Bebb’s initial case was rejected, four women passed the Law Society exams. The first female solicitor was admitted on 18 December 1922.
The four women who became solicitors at this time–Carrie Morrison, Maud Crofts, Mary Pickup, and Mary Sykes—faced an uphill struggle, along with the women who would go on to qualify as solicitors in the early 20th century. While the law had changed, and it was now possible for women to work as solicitors, the reality was not so simple. Parents placed less faith in their daughters as career-driven individuals, and it was near impossible to qualify without the financial support of a guardian to fund the costly exams. Attitudes remained stagnant, and if any family member was granted the chance to be a solicitor, it was a son.
The efforts of early women pioneers in law has been documented by Dana Denis-Smith. A lawyer herself, Denis-Smith created the First 100 years project to outline the achievements of historic women whose early careers have shaped—and will go on to shape—the working lives of every female solicitor. She has described the project as “not just for lawyers, but for all the people that lawyers serve.”
Women would fight for their integrity as legal professionals, as well as parity with men in the profession, for many decades, spanning the second world war—in which much of the male population was drafted into combat—and the liberal revolution of the late 1950s and early 1960s. This cumulated in the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975. While the legislation did not bring about real change straight away, it marked a positive step towards establishing employment legislation to protect female workers.
Once women gained traction as solicitors, they turned their attention to the top spots. The first female partner at a city firm was Dame Catherine Fiona Woolf, who made partner at CMS Cameron McKenna in 1981. In 1999, Diana Parker became Chairman of Withers—and in doing so, became the first woman to hold such a position at a top law firm.
Over the past 20 years alone, the number of women solicitors has expanded. As reported by the BBC in 1997, one-third of certificate holders were women. In 2002—almost 100 years after it denied women from sitting its exams—the Law Society welcomed its first female president in Carolyn Kirby. Sixteen years later in 2018, there are more female solicitors registered than there are male solicitors.
With numbers come influence, and there is no doubt that the sheer number of women solicitors, and the rate at which women join the profession, is a huge factor in ensuring visibility and representation in a previously male-dominated world.
As is the case with a variety of professions, the current landscape for female solicitors is dominated by the #MeToo movement. #MeToo has given rise to stories of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and hierarchical workplaces. The stark reality remains: women are present in law, but they have yet to achieve parity.
Yet for the first time ever, the Law Society has revealed that there are more women solicitors practicing in England and Wales than there are men. This means more representation, more women in visible positions in law, and more chances to bring about change in one of the UK’s most traditional sectors.
“As women solicitors practising in England and Wales outnumber men for the first time in history, people working in law across the world have spoken out about the challenges the profession faces in achieving gender equality,” said Law Society president Christina Blacklaws.
“I am a passionate believer in equality. Where there is inequality, I will not flinch from tackling it.
“I know I’m not alone in this - justice, fairness and the rule of law are what drew most of us to the legal profession.”
The Law Society conducted a survey which highlighted the areas which law firms need to work on to increase diversity across all areas—including gender diversity. 49% of participants said that the unacceptable work/life balance demanded to reach senior levels prevented them from progressing in their firms. 91% pointed to flexible working as a critical factor in improving diversity, while 52% - the largest percentage – believed that unconscious bias was the largest hindrance to career progression in 2018.
These insights from legal professionals of all genders show that there is still a long way to go before women in the top positions is no longer a rare feat. The Law Society’s survey also found that mentoring, engaging men in equality debates, and increased visibility of women in law would bring about positive change.
Such change is embodied by the women partners and women in senior management at law firms who have already carved out their careers. Sue Millar, a partner at Stephenson Harwood, was named Woman of the Year 2017 in the Law Society excellence awards. Meanwhile, Penelope Warne, the first Senior Partner at CMS, began her law career as the only female trainee in her cohort. She is now credited with her firm’s expansion into Scotland, and played an integral role in bringing about the largest merger in the British legal sector.
The existence of such figures at the top of the legal career ladder, together with the committed efforts of bodies such as the Law Society to see where change is needed, serves as an inspiration to female solicitors seeking to advance into the top law spots. Penelope Warne, Sonya Leydecker and Sue Millar will do for women today what early trailblazers did for women solicitors in the 20th century .
As the work of Gwyneth Bebb, Carrie Morrison, Maud Crofts and their colleagues has proven, women have always existed in law, but they have always had to struggle to do so. With more women entering the profession than ever before, there are now opportunities to change the sector for the better.