Carrie Morrison | Credit: First 100 Years Project
“Men say the law is too rough and tumble for women, but I’ve had that in the permit office,” Carrie Morrison told the Dundee Telegraph in October 1922. Several weeks later on the 18th December 1922, she became the first woman admitted to the roll of solicitors in England and Wales. 100 years on, there is plenty of cause for celebration.
Morrison broke the mould and entered a profession strictly reserved for men. Her pioneering efforts paved the way for girls in school to dream of a career as a solicitor, for women to stand alongside men in the law.
The past 100 years have seen tens of thousands of women go on to have the most successful of careers practising as solicitors, earning their silk, sitting on the bench, and even presiding over the Supreme Court. Today, 53% of all practising solicitors and 60% of new solicitors are women. Morrison played a key part in blazing this trail.
Today’s Wills and Probate spoke to a handful of women in the law to gauge their thoughts on the past 100 years of women in the law and where women are headed from here.
Why was the law ever seen as “too rough and tumble” for women?
“I suppose the idea of women being involved in the law was seen as beyond their ability,” said Stephanie Coker, Family Law Barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill, who questioned exactly what kind of “rough and tumble” in a legal career was beyond the scope of women:
“Times have changed in the last 100 years. Women can drink at the bar in El Vinos, and they can wear trousers. Gender stereotypes are being edged out. A successful practice these days is built on hard work and merit, qualities which ought to be gender-blind.”
Coker also suggested the idea likely stemmed from women being seen as caregivers and homemakers, something also touched upon by Keeley Lengthorn, Family and Children law partner, Taylor Rose MW:
“During that time, women were expected to be flawless and stay-at-home wives and mothers. There was never any perception that a woman would take on a job, let alone a profession. There was no such thing as ‘childless’ society, and so women were expected to bear children and create a family and a home. There was no real time or consideration for women to have a career.”
Women have taken the “rough and tumble” in their stride
“There is strength in numbers,” said Stephanie Coker:
“I have found mentorship programmes and associations such as Women in Family Law and Women in Law invaluable in bringing women together who are able to share their experiences and offer insight into how they navigated the obstacles they encountered.”
Coker added these groups and events are “very encouraging” and have “helped dispel the fear that pursuing a career at the Bar means that I am unable to have a family of my own”.
Eleanor Evans is a partner and Head of the Trusts and Estates Administration department at Hugh James. She trained with Hugh James and qualified as a solicitor in 2006, and has since gone on to manage a team of 50 private client lawyers:
“I am proud to work for Hugh James, a firm that is committed to equality and diversity and which has many talented women in leadership positions. I have benefited from mentoring from both female and male colleagues, and as a department head in the firm I am now happy to be able to help the next generation of lawyers succeed in the profession.”
Keeley Lengthorn commented that, while women are “robust to say the least”, many of the perceptions and attitudes around women in law must not be taken lying down:
“I have had to have broad shoulders, fight, and most importantly of all have confidence that as a woman we are ‘capable’ of getting to the top.”
The pioneering and persevering attitude of many women in the law has made it possible for them to not only practise, but to start their own firms too. Natalie Moore, who founded Aconveyancing in 2017, said:
“Every day I feel incredibly fortunate not only to practice law, but to run a business where I am financially independent and allow other women to be both financially independent and professionally fulfilled.
I will continue to employ amazing people and do whatever I can to inspire those people to achieve whatever they want in this exciting industry.”
Is the battle won?
“There are still some that think women are unable to take on socially challenging cases, or they are better suited for areas of law such as family law and not areas in which men are traditionally found in,” said Stephanie Coker, continuing:
“These attitudinal barriers can make some aspiring female barristers question whether there is room for them within other specialist areas such as commercial law. There is nothing wrong with women specialising in family law, but they should not be pushed into it because that is what they will be perceived to be good at, or that they can handle. Also, being assertive can sometimes be seen as you not being ‘feminine’ which can be a way to silence women.”
“As with many other professions, women of childbearing age often drop-off due to inflexible working opportunities,” said Natalie Moore, continuing:
“This allows men to take paths to the top and remain there. Change has happened in the last 10 years, but we still have further to go in placing more women around the boardroom table.
Similarly, we now have a long way to go in terms of placing disabled and ethnic minority staff at that boardroom table too. The gender pay gap is also an ongoing issue I am passionate about equalling out.”
Law Society of England and Wales president Lubna Shuja noted that, while there is “no doubt” that women are reshaping the spaces they work in and influencing the development of the law, their standing is senior roles is still cause for concern:
“Although women have outnumbered men in the solicitor profession since 2017, a relatively small proportion are in senior roles – for instance just 35% of partners in law firms are women.”
Shuja noted that the Society’s Practical Toolkit for Women in the Law “provides important insights into the barriers women around the world face and practical tips on how to set up new gender equality initiatives”. She continued:
“Our Women in Law Pledge also strives to bring gender equality to the forefront of the conversation and calls for firms to hold senior management accountable for progressing gender equality and to set targets for women at senior levels.
There’s often a sense of urgency to ’do something’ about diversity and inclusion (D&I) in response to events which leads to reactive, short-lived activity that lacks impact. Our D&I framework has three simple steps that will help create a workplace where everyone feels valued, respected and safe.”