A five-year project to celebrate the achievements of women lawyers has been launched, culminating at the centenary of the Act of Parliament which abolished the bar on their entry into the profession.
First 100 Years, which is building a library of stories of legal pioneers and oral history resources aiming to inspire future generations of women, begins this year, 95 years after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which lifted the barrier to entry.
An interactive web site includes a timeline of progress, beginning in 1892 with Cornelia Sorabji, a Bengali who was the first woman to sit the Bachelor of Civil Law examination at Oxford – although she could not be awarded the degree until the 1919 Act was passed.
The project has been launched by the legal outsourcing business Obelisk, with the backing of the Law Society and Bar Council. Obelisk uses former City solicitors – many of them women – to provide temporary support services to law firms and in-house teams.
Obelisk chief executive, former City lawyer Dana Denis-Smith, said First 100 Years was in part an attempt to view the achievements of women lawyers positively, in contrast to the “negative narrative of the diversity debate”.
She said: “Up to the 1960s there were something like 500 women solicitors and even fewer barristers in the whole of England and Wales, so actually the achievements of the last, say, 20 years are pretty extraordinary in that context.
“Let’s actually emphasise the successes and recognise the change that has happened, and the diversity of choice that women can make now in the legal profession. I think diversity on its own is actually no big deal, but to have the choice to go down different routes as a professional woman is really important.”
She said research for the website had so far brought to light some 40 “extraordinary individual stories” of women “succeeding against the odds”, ranging from lawyers in small practices to magic circle firms.
The choices the women made and their route to success within the profession would be of great interest to young women starting out in their careers, she said. “Actually you’ve got to make choices, they don’t just happen; you can say ‘I want to be the senior partner of Linklaters’ but you’ve got to work to get there. It’s not going to just happen because you want it, and it will involve sacrifices as it would in any career.”
Ms Denis-Smith said the stories had a bearing not just on gender but on social mobility, since many of the women came from poor backgrounds and had pursued success in a legal career as a means to effect progress in their lives. In the past they had not felt able to talk about it, but now were willing to do so.
“People are saying: ‘When I applied for my first job in law, I got a letter from the firm saying they had a problem employing women because they had had a bad experience before, so will never accept a woman.’ And it didn’t stop them; they persevered.
“Things have changed in terms of practice but they have also changed in terms of legislation in the last 50 years. Now you could not send a letter as a law firm saying that…
“We’ve never had it so good as women, actually. We’re not going to get rejected in the kind of brutal way that you would have had to deal with 50 years ago.”
She added: “I want these stories to be told as part of people’s journey to success, rather than dwell on the barriers. The website is full of facts, and anecdotes, and very personal stories that people will remember.”
Some 47.7% of practising solicitors are now women (rising to 61% of solicitors under the age of 35), as are 37% of practising barristers.
In 1913 the Court of Appeal refused a challenge to the Law Society’s refusal to allow women to sit its examinations. In Bebb v The Law Society, the court ruled that women were not ‘persons’ within the meaning of the 1843 Solicitors Act.
Following the 1919 Act, the first women to pass their examination were Maud Crofts, Carrie Morrison, Mary Pickup and Mary Sykes in 1922. The apocryphal tale is that the four held a race down Chancery Lane to determine which would win the honour of being the first woman admitted to the roll, which Ms Morrison won. However, in fact she finished her articles before the others.