UK: 100 Years of Women in Law

Eliška Stroehlein is a third year English Law – French Law student at Panthéon-Assas University Paris II with an interest in international law, queerness, and representation.

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2019 marks one hundred years since the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in the United Kingdom, a landmark piece of legislation aimed at admitting women to more areas of public life, including the civil service and the legal professions. This in the years following the First World War that saw certain women being granted the vote as well as with the first female MP taking her seat in Parliament. Several key figures stand out from the long history of women in the Law, although of course this article could mention many more. But a century on, we must ask how exactly has the landscape changed for women working throughout the legal domain, and what more needs to be done to ensure a diverse, respectful and empowering work environment for all. 

Women have played a role in the legal system long before the passing of the Act, often as clerks tasked with copying documents for barristers and solicitors. Victorian England viewed this work as ‘appropriate’ for women, as it could be done while sitting, and as such was one of the few professions available for middle-class women beyond teaching. Maria Rye noted as much when she opened a law stationer’s business in 1859 with a view to empowering young women. Several other women studied for legal degrees, often as the only female students in their entire cohort, including Eliza Orme, who earned an LLB from University College London in 1888. Before completing her education however, Orme had practised irregularly as a convencer on Chancery Lane, but her expertise was never professionally recognised. 

Another woman who practised despite the constraints placed on her by her gender was Cornelia Sorabji; born in India, she was the first woman to graduate from Bombay University. She then went to Oxford to become the first woman to sit the postgraduate Bachelor of Civil Laws exam in 1892, however her degree was not awarded til after the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. Following changes in the Law, she eventually went on to practise in India and Britain, the first woman to work in both jurisdictions. Throughout her career, she championed the cause of women living in purdah, a form of religious and social seclusion, as well as undertaking numerous pro bono cases for women and orphans. 

After the passing of the Act, the first wave of female lawyers was admitted to practise. 1920 saw Madge Easton Anderson, a Scottish solicitor, qualify, and two years later both Dr Ivy Williams and Helena Normanton were called to the Bar in England. Some years prior to her calling, Williams wrote to the Law Journal saying that  “The legal profession will have to admit us in their own defence […] a band of lady University lawyers will say to the Benchers and the Law Society ‘Admit us or we shall form a third branch of the profession and practice as outside lawyers’.” This comment was not well received by the publication, rather it was characterised as “a futile attempt of a persistent lady to gain admission to the Bar”. Normanton was the first female lawyer to appear before the High Court and the Old Bailey, becoming the first female King’s Counsel along with Rose Heilbron in 1949. She practised under her maiden name, and was the first married woman in Britain to be issued a passport bearing the name she was born with.

Since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, and many pioneering female solicitors, baristers and judges later, much has changed for women seeking a career in Law. Nowadays, female students make up two thirds of those accepted to study Law at university. This is credited with more women applying, as the number of male applicants has stayed more or less consistent for the last ten years. Of all those accepted onto legal courses, 36.5% are from a BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) background. This diversity is reflected in the entry-level makeup of the legal profession, with 61% of solicitors admitted to the roll in 2016 being female. As for the Bar, 51.7% of pupil barristers are women. 

Behind all these statistics however, it is important to remember that a career in Law is unattainably expensive for many. In light of recent increase in university fees and slashing of maintenance loans and grants, many from poorer backgrounds are unable to attend higher education. Even when students graduate, the road to qualification remains long and expensive. In 2016 the Bar Council chair calculated that students could spend up to £127,000 over the course of qualification. While the Inns of Court do provide scholarships, the annual minimum pay for pupilage is just £12,000, which stretches even less when you consider that most Chambers are located in London. This goes to show that, while Law may be diverse with regards to gender and ethnicity, it is still shockingly lacking in social mobility.  

Moreover, as women’s legal careers progress, they encounter an increasing number of obstacles. The Solicitors Regulation Authority found that a white male solicitor has an almost 75% chance of becoming a partner in a firm at some point in his career compared to a 13% chance for a BAME female solicitor, although this figure can increase to 30% in high street firms. Less than 15% of all QCs are women, and this is often pinned on the fact that many will take a break from the Bar or outright leave to have children, and that in order to become a QC one must have sufficient professional experience (in 2017, of the 119 individuals taking silk, 73 were older than 51). Many calls have been made to improve working conditions for all barristers with children, regardless of gender, as long and uncertain hours can make childcare logistically challenging and costly. 

We may have come a long way since 1919, but there are still steps to be made so that by 2119, all keen legal minds, regardless of gender, race or background, can embark on a fulfilling career in the legal world. 

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