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To celebrate International Women’s Day on the 8th March, we thought we’d take a look back through the history books at the influential women in law and the laws passed that changed history for women in the workplace.
It’s just over 100 years since the first woman started practising law in 1919, a year after women won the right to vote in 1918. But what changed to allow women to practice law in the UK?
The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in 1919
Firstly, the removal of The Sex Disqualification Act made it possible for women to join professions and professional bodies and they could also sit on juries and be awarded degrees. This meant that women could practice law for the first time in history.
First female solicitor in the UK
The first female to become a professional lawyer was Madge Easton Anderson in 1920, a graduate of Glasgow University.
Madge Easton Anderson was the first woman to graduate from university with a law degree and was the first female to begin practising law in 1920. As you can imagine, it wasn’t an easy achievement for her - her application as a law agent was initially refused because her training began before the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed. She appealed to the Court of Session and her petition was heard and granted in December 1920.
She established her own practice in Glasgow and went on to form the very first legal firm run by women with partners Edith Annie Berthen and Beatrice Honour Davy in 1931.
And if that wasn’t enough, she also became the first woman to qualify and practice as a solicitor in both England and Scotland, passing the English Law Society final exam in 1937.
First female to be called to the bar and teach law
In 1922, Ivy Williams became the first female to be admitted to the bar. She came from a family of solicitors and barristers but she too faced similar struggles, having completed all her law exams in 1903 but was prevented from qualifying in Oxford until the reform in 1919. In the end, she didn’t practice law but became the first female to teach law.
First female practicing barrister
Helena Florence Normanton was the second woman to be called to the Bar after Ivy in 1922 and became the first female to practice as a barrister. Although married, she kept her maiden name and became the first female to be issued a British passport in her maiden name.
She was the first woman to obtain a divorce for her client, the first to prosecute in a murder trial and the first to conduct in a trial in America, as well as the first to appear at the High Court and the Old Bailey.
First King’s Counsel
As if Helena hadn’t achieved enough, if you fast forward a few years to 1949 Helena and Rose Heilbron were the first females appointed King’s Counsel at the Bar - the highest ranking position of a senior barrister in British law. Rose became the first woman to lead a murder case and went on to appear in 10 murder trials as well as leading in several other important cases.
Sex Discrimination Act 1975
This Act made it unlawful for a company to employ or promote a male worker with fewer qualifications or less experience than a female worker.
First female partner at a city law firm
Dame Catherine Fiona Woolf became the first female partner at a city law firm in 1981. She specialised in major infrastructure developments and treaty agreements between French and British governments about the Channel Tunnel.
It took a further two decades before Lady Hale became the first female to be appointed as a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary at the House of Lords in 2014 - the only female to have been appointed to that position.
She’s also the first female to serve as President of the Supreme Court in 2017 and is only one of three women to have been appointed to the Supreme Court alongside Lady Black and Lady Arden.
We’re only skimming the surface of influential women who changed the legal profession - it’s strange to think that just over 100 years ago there were essentially no women in professional careers. All the influential women mentioned above have paved the way to make it possible for females to practice law today.
In fact the latest SRA figures show that in 2021, 52% of all lawyers working in law firms are female which is an increase of 4% from 2020 and 58% of in-house solicitors are female.
However there’s still a long way to go. The theme for International Women's Day 2021 is Choose to Challenge. The legal profession has an issue with equality and diversity. The gender pay gap in the legal sector is still a problem, with some firms reporting pay gaps of over 60% and the prospects of women becoming a partner in a law firm is much lower - only 35% of partners are women.
There are also barriers for BAME lawyers - not just females - only 17% of all lawyers are BAME. Even in the current climate there are still plenty of ‘firsts’ for women in the profession, with Raffia Arshad becoming the first Hijab-wearing judge in Britain and in 2021 Stephanie Boyce became the first non-white president of The Law Society.
We're thankful for our very own influential women at Outset who make up a big part of our team and contribute significantly to all aspects of our business.