Published on November 21, 2017 by isabellaford

Being a working woman in today’s society is rife with difficulties. It has been over 95 years since the the first female solicitor was admitted to the Law Society. But although this is a cause for celebration for women in law worldwide, the current figures are not too encouraging. In 2016, the Solicitors Regulation Authority found that half of practising solicitors are now women. But there is a catch. Less than 30% of these women are partners at their firms. Moreover, the SRA found that women are more likely to work in regional branches than big City circles.

These figures lead us to question how far women in law have really come. Has the legal reform over the ages been a proactive evolution towards equality, or merely a reactive token for an underrepresented minority?

Women in Law: A Timeline of Developments

A timeline of the 20th century can be used to demonstrate the change in women’s legal status:

  • 1913: The Law Society refused to allow women to sit Law Society examinations.
  • 1913: The Court of Appeal, per Mr Justice Joyce, argued that women did not constitute as ‘persons’ under the Solicitors Act 1843.
  • 1919: The Sex Disqualification Act was passed to allow women to practise law.
  • 1922: The first four women – Maud Crofts, Carrie Morrison, Mary Pickup and Mary Sykes, passed their law examinations.
  • 1922: Carrie Morrison became the first woman in the United Kingdom to be admitted to the role of a solicitor and Helena Normanton became the first practising female barrister.
  • 1931: 100 women had qualified as a solicitors. A numbers crunch further exemplifies a slow but sustained proportional revision of the solicitor cohort.
  • 1957: Only 1.94% of certified solicitors were women.
  • 1977: Two decades later, 7.33% of certified solicitors were women.
  • 1997: Another twenty years on, this increased to a third of solicitors.
  • 2008: The Legal Services Board found that the percentage of female solicitors had grown tenfold since 1984.
  • 2020: In the United States, 47% of associates at law firms were women. However, only 12% of managing partners were female and only 2% of law firms had women amongst their highest-paid solicitors. In the UK, 51% of solicitors were women, but only 32% of all senior roles belonged to them.

Women in Law: The Reality of Sexism

Paul Philip, the SRA’s chief executive, said: “There should not be any barriers stopping the best people – whatever their background – thriving in law.” The numbers show that women do indeed have what it takes to succeed in the field – with 2021 being the fifth year in a row with women leading in terms of law admissions. So why are they not permitted to thrive?

According to the SRA’s 2021 Diversity Survey, in the average UK commercial law firm women only make up 35% of partners. Furthermore, there have numerous incidents of discrimination reported in the workplace:

  • In 2013, former Travers Smith trainee Katie Tatum successfully challenged the firm’s rejection of her NQ position on the grounds of discrimination on the basis of her pregnancy.
  • In 2013, a memo from Clifford Chance, the Magic Circle firm with the second-highest female partnerships, was leaked to the press. It was a message sent to female employees suggesting that they ‘see how low you can go’ in attempt to persuade them to deepen the pitches of their voices, and to remind them to stop giggling and showing their cleavage.
  • A survey of 800 female solicitors by King’s College London and the Association of Women Solicitors found that 50% respondents believed they could not take time off work as part of ‘flexible’ hours as it demonstrates a lack of dedication to their career. This meant many had not planned children or relationship commitments for the future.

Prima facie, women in law have come a long way, and mostly by their own campaign. Plainly, both employers and society are yet to catch up. Perhaps this just a (very long) marathon and not a sprint – or are women in an obstacle race that they just cannot win?


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