December 2022 marks 100 years since the qualification of the first female solicitor in England and Wales. Since that landmark event, the legal sector has become increasingly accessible for women, but for law firms, further work is required to achieve genuine gender parity.
Celebrating 100 years
It’s been a century since the introduction, in 1919, of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, which made it illegal to prevent a person from being able to qualify as a solicitor, sit as a magistrate, or sit on a jury based on their sex alone.
In doing so, the legal sector was responding to need. The First World War saw 5,000 solicitors and articled clerks serve in the armed forces, of which 906 died, and many were left unable to work. In addition, to attract more trainees, the Law Society waived its usual training premium, and agreed that articled clerks could count time spent in the armed forces as a year’s good service for the purposes of articles.
One of the few, if not the only woman, in a position to take advantage of this waiver was Carrie Morrison. A former teacher, she had served a year in Constantinople as part of the Army of the Black Sea, before being admitted as the first ever female solicitor in December 1922 (opens a new window).
In the ensuing decades, more women followed in Morrison’s footsteps, albeit slowly. By the late 1950s, there were around 350 women solicitors compared with almost 18,000 men (opens a new window), about 2% of the profession. By 1967, this had risen to almost 3%.
Despite considerable progress within the legal sector, work remains to be done to achieve gender parity. This is especially the case at partner level, where women continue to be heavily under-represented across law firms.
According to data from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), as of April 2022, the (52%) majority of lawyers are women (opens a new window). However, this figure changes dramatically when seniority is considered; although women account for 61% of solicitors, they make up just 35% of those at partner level.
The reasons for this disparity are various. According to a 2019 report by the Law Society (opens a new window), unconscious bias is the most frequently cited reason for why so few women attain senior positions within law firms.
This could manifest through a narrow definition of what leadership looks like, with male-dominated firms privileging traditionally ‘male’ characteristics, such as assertiveness and strength. Recruiters and managers within such firms may also hire within their image, creating a perpetual narrowing of opportunities for women, as well as those from different ethnic or religious backgrounds.
Presumptions about women’s roles, capabilities, and ambitions, such as not wanting to become partners in a firm, may also hinder women’s progression. Women are also likely to be held to higher standards, with many perceived as less committed to the workplace because of the presumption that they will want children, irrespective of their desire to be a mother or not.
Supporting women in the workplace
Ahead of the centenary of the first female solicitor, Lockton spoke to three female law firm partners about their experience in the legal profession, the obstacles they face, and how they’re supporting women in the workplace.
According to Lulu Dionissiou, Co-owner of Moreland & Co Solicitors Limited, one of the biggest obstacles for women solicitors is returning to work after maternity leave.
“It is often a balancing act between family life and a heavy workload and subsequently declining promotions for that very reason,” she said. “When it was time for me to return to work, there was guilt about leaving the children, anxiety about changes in the law, and pressure upon myself to re-establish myself as a solicitor.
“I’ve often questioned whether I would have returned at all, had I not had my own firm.”
This is a view shared by Amy Church, Managing Partner at Lucas & Wyllys Solicitors. She told Lockton: “Sadly, having a family is still a big obstacle for women in law. When I came into partnership, I was expected to work full time hours, which was difficult as I had a one-year-old to look after.
“I am incredibly lucky to have a lot of family around me to help, but not all women are as fortunate. Thankfully, my firm is now incredibly family friendly, which makes chasing after my now 10-year-old while working a lot easier."
Also speaking to Lockton was Geeta Daswani, Founder of The Daswani Law Company (The DLC). She argued that it was crucial for peers and superiors in the workplace to demonstrate patience and understanding when it comes to women’s needs.
“Women will always go through different stages in life that might need their attention,” Geeta said. “It doesn’t make them less efficient, but what could in fact boost their performance and confidence is a word of encouragement, support, and most importantly, the gift of time for them to bounce back."
Recommendations to support women in law firms
Train leaders and partners to identify unconscious bias to mitigate its impact on business decisions
Ensure that recruitment and selection practices are gender-blind and competency-based
Collect data on recruitment practices to inform strategy moving forward
Establish a focus on improving representation in the workplace, to ensure realistic targets are set for short, medium, and long-term initiatives
Offer workplace benefits such as flexibility around maternity and paternity leave
Ensure that women’s contributions to the workplace are recognised, renumerated, and factored into promotions
Allocate work appropriately to provide women with the opportunity to demonstrate competence and ability in the workplace
Consider the needs of those with caring responsibilities or part-time employees when scheduling meetings
Roll out remote working flexibility to assist with the practicalities and costs of childcare
Educate employees through financial seminars, brochures, and workshops to help them plan for now and the future
For further information, please contact:
Lucie Gosling-Myers, Client Development Manager, Lockton People Solutions
T: +44 7721 327 427