Sisters in law

IT IS 80 years since women first qualified as lawyers in this country, and considering that females are now entering the profession at a much faster rate than males, it would seem as if they have made up for lost time quickly. Or have they?

Survey after survey shows that there are not enough women at partnership level, or in top level positions, or on the bench. So what is the problem? In search of enlightenment, Jennifer Currie looks at what women lawyers have achieved in the last 80 years and what we should be looking out for in the future.


Some history

LAW SOCIETY records reveal that it prevented a “young lady” from sitting its qualifying examinations way back in 1879, but this attitude was significantly challenged in 1903, when Bertha Cave took Gray’s Inn to court over its refusal to admit her as a bar student. Although the court dismissed her appeal, Cave’s experience did not deter others and, just a few years later in 1913, a group of four female university graduates took the Law Society to court over its maleonly policies.

Olce again the Court of Appeal rejected the claims, and it was only after World War I that the Sex Disqualification (Removal) ht 1919 came about, which permitted women to hold any office or enter a civil vocation or profession. Now women could become lawyers, accountants or vets – almost anything they wanted to.

Women were quick to seize this unprecedented opportunity and Ivy Williams became the first female barrister in 1922,

while fellow barrister Helena Normanton was appointed as one of the first female King’s Counsel in 1949. Just to cap it off, Normanton became the first woman to appear in the County and High Courts.

By 1923, the Law Society reported that four women had been admitted to the profession and two had become members of the Law Society. The first woman to be admitted as a solicitor was Carrie Morrison, while Maud Crofts was the first woman to take out a practising certificate.

Of course, admitting women to the profession opened up a whole new can of worms for the Law Society, which quickly had to install new sets of “facilities” for its lady members in 1923 as the number of women began to grow.

Other notable dates include the first female judge in 1962, the first female Court of Appeal judge in 1988 and the landmark decision to allow women lawyers to wear trousers in court, which was made in 1995.

Women lawyers unite!

CARRIE Morrison (pictured righ~, the fi rst female qualified solicitor, formed the 1919 Oub in, you guessed it, 1919, to provide women lawyers with a support network.

Yet enthusiasm for the group had waned by the 1960s and the 1919 Club would probably have closed down were it not for the life-saving efforts of a small band, who promptly relaunched the group as the Association of Women Solicitors (AWS).

Today, the AWS has a voluntary membership of 9,800 – around a quarter of all female solicitors in this country – and current chair Karen Aldred is fiercely proud and positive about the AWSs achievements and future.

“We must be constructive and positive,” she states firmly. “It’s so easy for us to be perceived as screaming middle-aged banshees, and we’re not. The fact that we’ve continued for 80 years is significant and it shows there’s still a need for a mutual support network.”

In recent years the AWS has secured a reduced practising fee for women who work part time or earn little, and also squeezed a council seat out of the Law Society.

“I hope we’ll see changes, so that partnership isn’t seen as the be-all and end-all, because it can be a stifling experience, for women in particular,” says Aldred. “I’d also like to see the profession becoming more family-friendly, not just for women, but for men as well.”

The Association of Women Barristers was established in 1991.

View from the bar

WHILE discrimination against women almost certainly takes place at the Bar, you will never hear about it happening, according to one leading female barrister, who wants to remain anonymous. “There must still be some clerks’ rooms where women are given all the family work and the men get all the commercial work,” she says. “At the beginning you have to show that you’re robust and effective, because people will look shocked when they’re faced with a young woman. But once you’ve got over that you’re really on a level footing, and I actually think being a woman has been nothing but an advantage.”

Because most chambers now have proper constitutions in place, the issue of discrimination is taken “very seriously”.

Female barristers face different issues than solicitors on the ladder to a partnership. “One advantage is that barristers are selfdependent, so you can work whenever you want,” adds the source. “But it’s a disadvantage if you’re committed 100 per cent to a trial because you can’t just leave in the middle. Solicitors may not have the same flexibilityof hours, but they have more back-up.”

Much like the solicitors’ profession, many female barristers appear to be dropping out at an early stage. “1 don’t think it has anything to do with discrimination,” says the source. “1 just think it’s so difficult to combine work and family.”

The judiciary

WOMEN are still seriously underrepresented in the senior judiciary, a fact that has been acknowledged by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine. The official word is that too few women currently have enough experience to be appointed to the Bench, but this will change with time.

There are no female Law Lords, and Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss (pictured righ~ is the only female High Court division head. When Butler-Sloss, President of the High Court Family Division, was made an appeal judge in the 1980s, the court was forced to install its fi rst lad ies’ 100.

While there are now two female appeal judges (out of 36) in place, a mere six out of 107 High Court judges are women.

According to the Lord Chancellor’s Department: “It is not the purpose of the judiciary to be representative of society, but there remains much to be done before the judiciary reflects the diversity of the population it serves in terms of racial and gender balance. Appointments will always be made on merit from among those who are the most suitably qualified, but the Lord Chancellor, and those who advise him, will continue to work with the legal profession to develop procedures and introduce new approaches to the selection of judges.”

Who wants to be a partner anyway?

ACCORDING to Law Society statistics, under a quarter of women solicitors in private practice are partners, compared with more than half of men.

While it is inevitable that the old boy network will be in part responsible for the proportionally low number of female partners, another major factor is the fact that women simply do not want the job.

A 2001 survey of top 40 firms found that 40 per cent of female assistants would reject the offer of partnership, while 86 per cent of women solicitors said they would be happier with the career paths open to them if they included more flexible working conditions. Research byacademics at Cardiff University unsurprisingly revealed that life in a Qty law firm is not compatible with bringing up a young family.

Yet holding down a stressful job while raising a family can be, and is, done. As Janet Armstrong-Fox, a partner and head of property at Collyer-Bristow, explains, a great deal of juggling is required. “I worked up until I went into labour, had a few weeks maternity leave, and then returned to myoid work routine of long hours and weekend working,” she recalls. “My employer would have been hardpushed to spot that anything in my life had changed. I didn’t dare push my luck by having a second child.

” Three years later I was made a partner. Yes, it’s exhausting; yes, it often feels unfair; yes, it’s entirely unsatisfactory on a personal level- but the harsh reality is, and perhaps always will be, that we can’t afford to be different.”

Alison Beardsley, Allen & Overy‘s (A&O) first corporate partner, hopes more women will want to” stick it out” though to partnership level. “It’s very much a meritocracy here, and if you stick to the course then your chances are as good as the guys’.

“There’s been a shift in terms of what the new recruits want from their careers. They see people making sacrifices to be a partner at a firm like MO and decide that it’s not for them.

“[1 hope] we can make arrangements so that more women can be encouraged to be lawyers for longer; but at the end of the day, you have to want to do the job that’s on offer.”

The Law Society

DOTTED around the lobby of the Law Society’s headquarters in Chancery Lane are sombre-looking portraits of its past presidents. As the fi rst female president of the Law Society of England and Wales, Carolyn Ki rby (pictured above) has to decide if she wants to commission, and then donate, a painting of herself to hang alongside all the gloomy gents.

“A colleague did ask me if I’d need to grow a moustache to have a picture done,” she remarks. “My own little wheeze would be to have a picture of me on a chaise longue, draped with some diaphanous material. People would look at it and say, ‘I knew it was a bad idea to let a woman in’ ,”

Kirby, who also chairs the Mental Health Review Tribunal for Wales, is halfway through her one-year term as president and is overseeing some fundamental reviews of existing equality policies and frameworks.

While she thinks that law firms perform relatively well as employers, Kirby says that students could help spread messages about equality in the workplace.

“Students should consider asking questions during interviews that challenge the culture of the firm they’re going to work for,” she explains. “They can change the future by making a point of asking questions about flexible working practices and so on to make the interviewers aware that the best candidates are going to choose firms on the basis of characteristics like that.”

Not only is Kirby proud of the fact that she was voted in as president by the members of her profession (before the Law Society changed its rules), she is equally pleased by the fact that she was not the only woman interested in the presidency. “1 was up against another woman and another man, so I wasn’t a token female.”

Looking to the future, Kirby thinks it is important to ask what can be done better in terms of equality, rather than appointing blame for a lack of female senior partners and high-flying judges.

“There must be 10 times more women in the profession today than there was when I started out,” she says. “We have to encourage women to stay in the profession and to get all the experience they need.”

Diane Parker, chairman, Withers

Family lawyer Diana Parker scored a legal fi rst when she was elected as senior partner at City law firm Withers – for not only was she the City’s fi rst female senior partner, she was also the youngest. Parker, whose winning election slogan was ‘How dare she? How dare we?’, still bills 1,000 hours a year (around 19 hours a week).

Parker has also steered the firm through some pretty ground breaking manoeuvres in recent months, including Withers’ conversion to a UK limited liability partnership (LLP) as well as a US merger. “It was huge fun but very ageing to become the first (and the youngest) female senior partner,” Parker admits. “It’s a responsibility as well as a privilege.”

Claiming that “curiosity value” was an advantage when she qualified as a solicitor, Parker says she has never experienced discrimination at work. “I think that demographic factors meant I was the recipient of positive discrimination. I do think there is either positive or negative discrimination on the grounds of gender within the legal profession now,” she adds.

Parker thinks women have other advantages in the legal world. “I think Women in general are better at multitasking than men and tend to be more manipulative than men – which is a disparaging way of saying that they’re perhaps more sensitive to emotion and are therefore better able to manage people and get their own way without throwing too much weight around,” she says. ” Both attributes are extremely helpful vis-a.-vis clients and management within the office.”

Yet women and men should be aiming for shared goals over the next 80 years, according to Parker.

“A greater understanding [is needed that the] law is but a tool in people’s business and personal lives, so that the thrust of the lawyer is commercial, entrepreneurial and using the law positively in the context of the overall promotion of a client’s interests,” says Parker.

Janet Gaymer, senior partner, Simmons & Simmons

JANET Gaymer joined Simmons & Simmons as a trainee in 1971 and became the firm’s senior partner in 2001. Judging by one of her early experiences, it seems that attitudes towards women in the law have significantly changed during the past 20 years.

“01e Qty firm said on receipt of my application, ‘We’re prejudiced against female articled clerks due to some unfortunate experiences in the past’ ,” recalls Gaymer.

But she adds: “I do believe that considerable progress has been made in the legal profession, so far as discrimination is concerned. Women solicitors are no longer an unusual sight in a law firm. Real progress will have been made when it will not be unusual for a female lawyer to occupy a top job.”

Slowly but surely, Gaymer thinks the number of women in top legal posts will increase as more female senior players filter through.

“The size of the pool is a direct consequence of the numbers of women who leave the profession for a variety of reasons and don’t return to it,” she says. “The key is, therefore, to ensure that there’s as wide a selection as possible of the available candidates for top jobs in law firms.”

Gaymer dealt with the first unfair dismissal cases caused by the 1971 Industrial Relations Act as a newly qualified solicitor, and went on to become head of the firm’s employment law department.

Yet despite her own experiences and the fact that one of her daughters is currently in the middle of a training contract, Gaymer insists that women’s issues are “simply one of a number of business issues” that a senior partner has to take into account, adding: “The priority to be given to any business issue at any time will depend upon the particular circumstances.”

As for female law students interested in a high-flying Qty career, Gaymer recommends the following: ” Pursue your career enthusiastically, work to the highest standards while ensuring that you keep yourself healthy. Above all, retain a sense of humour at all times.”

Lesley MacDonagh, managing partner, Lovells

Lesley MacDonagh has been managing partner of top five firm Lovells since 1995, a position she was re-elected to for the fourth time last year.

MacDonagh’s role, which is similar to that of a chief executive’s, has not been made any easier by the fact that Lovells has doubled in size during her tenure thanks to a series of mergers. Now responsible for 3,000 employees, MacDonagh is also a mother of four and claims that great support teams, both in the office and at home, allow her to juggle so many balls at once without dropping any of them.

O1ly one gender-related incident sticks in MacDonagh’s memory. “When I was first a partner over 20

years ago, we once held a partners’ dinner at a private club in the West End. Because I was female I was not allowed to go in the front door and had to enter through a side door,” she says. “1imes have now changed,” she adds happily.

MacDonagh thinks that so few women, especially married women, occupy top law jobs at the moment because of the sheer pressure of combining a family life with a managerial role.

Despite all the pressures, though, MacDonagh thinks that the legal profession has come further and faster than most others in terms of embracing equal opportunities for all.

“We operate a simple ‘best person for the job’ philosophy; and surprise, surprise, we have a huge number of women in our legal and support roles,” she says.

Looking to the future, MacDonagh advises student lawyers to be committed and ambitious. “No one can really teach you those,” she adds.

At least there is no implied sexism in the term ‘solicitor’, she says. “I don’t believe the word ‘solicitor’ conjures up the presumption of either a male or female – that’s quite an achievement.”