8th Mar 2019

Reflections on a century of women in law

This year is the centenary anniversary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919. This fiercely fought legislation was ground-breaking for women enabling them to qualify as solicitors and barristers, hold judicial posts, sit on juries and act as magistrates. 

In 1922, after gaining their degrees, Carrie Morrison, Maud Crofts, Mary Pickup and Mary Sykes were the first women to pass the Law Society examinations to become a solicitor.  It was 18th December 1922 when Carrie Morrison became the first of the four women to be admitted as a solicitor.   How did she achieve the honour of being first?  Best exam results?  Alphabetical? Age at admission??  No, I learned that it was decided (by men!) that there should be a running race – the four women should race the length of Chancery Lane and the first to arrive at the doors of the Law Society was the first to be admitted!

Around the same sort of time (November 1922) Helena Normanton became the first woman to practise as a barrister in England.  (She wasn’t the first to be called to the English Bar – that was Dr Ivy Williams - but she never practised and instead became the first woman to teach law at an English university).   Helena Normanton apparently paved the way for me and my career - being the first woman to obtain a divorce for a client.  I can’t resist another shout out to my area of law around this time: the Matrimonial Causes Act (1923) meant that women could also obtain a divorce for a man’s adultery as the sole reason.  Previously – yes you guessed it - only men could make this claim.

I’ve been so interested learning this history, but what of 2019.  I don’t see myself as a feminist.  I have been fortunate because my family, teachers, friends and employers have never put gender on the agenda when it comes to me making progress.  I knew from my teens that I wanted to be a family lawyer and I have never felt that opportunities have been denied to me because I am a woman.  Quite the opposite I think; who I am as a person compliments what I do as a family lawyer and now as Managing Director.  I don’t think I have to compete with male colleagues to make progress.  I believe we all bring our qualities to our role and that is how we progress.   Teamwork is one of our core values at Berwins.

I knew from my teens that I wanted to be a family lawyer and I have never felt that opportunities have been denied to me because I am a woman.

Maybe I have been lucky - the situation doesn’t appear to be the same for all?  For solicitors, 100 years on and more women than men train to enter the profession and women represent more than 50% of the solicitors who are practising. The president of the Law Society is a woman - Christina Blacklaws – but only the fifth woman (of 174!) to hold the office.  It’s evident that the pace of change is still (too?) slow that no. 1 on Christina’s manifesto is “Diversity and inclusion - focusing on social mobility and women in leadership in the law”.  She is also focusing on the fact that many women do not advance to senior positions and management issues and looking at the practical reasons for this, as well as ‘unconscious bias’. 

For barristers, Amanda Pinto QC is Vice-Chair of the Bar Council.  A female vice president is more common; Amanda being the third woman in 8 years to hold the office.  Amanda says that 51% of pupils (the training programme for barristers) are female, but this tails off after about 10-14 years, because the demands of the court system is not well matched with family life and so women leave the bar around this stage in their career and fewer go on to qualify as QCs. 

Both The Law Society and The Bar Council are behind the First 100 Years campaign, Amanda and Christina very much behind their mission statement: “Celebrating the past to share the future for women in law”  I’m proud that women are so well represented amongst our lawyers at Berwins and you are going to hear from them and their stories in our Women In Law 100 Series.  I hope you enjoy meeting them and how they arrived at what they do now.  I promise no running races were involved!

Sarah Smith has over 20 years' experience in law. She is Yorkshire's only Eminent Practitioner in Family Law and is Berwins' Managing Directer. 

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