When Carrie Morrison made history in 1922 by becoming the first woman ad-mitted to the Roll, it would have been hard to believe that just over 80 years later the profession would be wondering where all the men had gone.
This, however, is exactly the situation exercising the minds of law firms, which find themselves faced with soaring rates of female trainees and decreasing rates of male counterparts. In 2003-04, women made up 63 per cent of students enrolling with the Law Society, 62 per cent of trainees and 57 per cent of admissions to the Roll. Since 1950, the number of women entering the profession each year has risen at an average rate of 10.6 per cent. Put another way, this means the number of female solicitors doubles every seven years.
Firms of all sizes are finding this to be the case. For the past four years, Clifford Chance has had an average women to men split for its trainees of 54:46 per cent. Law Society statistics from 2003-04 show that firms with two to four partners took on 343 male trainees while the equivalent number for females is 624.
As this trend is relatively under-researched, it is far from clear why law is being feminised at this phenomenal rate – the Ally McBeal effect, men’s relative immaturity and increased competition from other professions have all been cited as possible reasons. But what is clear is that the swing towards the female of the species starts early in the qualification process.
In 2002 the number of women accepted on to law degrees was 7,346, which represents 62 per cent of all students – already the gender split is evident. As competition for law degree places is fierce, this could be a reflection of girls’ better A level attainment compared to their male classmates. The split is then further compounded by law degree results, where women are also out-performing men in terms of achieving top grades.
Linklaters graduate recruitment partner Olivia McKendrick comments that women are performing “very well” at interview. She thinks there is probably a 60:40 split in favour of women in the magic circle, but has heard anecdotally that in some mid-size firms, women make up as much as 85 per cent of the trainee population.
So does it actually matter if the testosterone levels in law firms come down a bit? After all, the fact remains that the profession is still male dominated – currently 57,558 men have practising certificates, while the corresponding figure for women is 39,199 and the presence of women at partnership level is still woeful.
Law Society head of education and training Julie Swan says the increase in female solicitors is “not seen as a negative thing” by the society.
“The issue is what happens in terms of career progression and the way in which expectations, needs and demands might affect working patterns,” she adds.
As women are more likely than men to either take career breaks or leave private practice altogether, Swan says that unless firms respond positively to the needs of women they could find themselves facing an exodus of senior people in the near future.
At the moment firms are watching this trend with interest, but are not yet worried enough to do anything about it.
Ruth Edwards, the graduate recruitment manager at Norton Rose, where 58 per cent of its trainees are female, says this is simply the result of hiring the best people. “At the end of the day we’re judging them on merit and not on the sex they are,” she says. “I don’t know if it is something we can really do anything about.”
McKendrick agrees: “If you take the view that you don’t want quotas, if 80 per cent of the best people applying are women, you should take them. Ditto, if they were men. You wouldn’t want to skew the numbers for the sake of quotas or stats.”
But if women continue to flood into the profession and family-friendly and flexible working policies are ramped up at the expense of the macho long-hours culture, in the not-too-distant future working in a law firm could be a radically different experience.