As the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 reaches its centenary on 23 December 2019, it is a good time to review how far women have come in the legal profession and what still needs to be achieved.

The battle to become a lawyer

By the late nineteenth century, some professions (including those of doctors and teachers) had already allowed women to join their ranks but the legal profession remained staunchly opposed to inclusion. In 1879, a young woman called Eliza Orme applied for permission to sit the Law Society’s exams to become a solicitor but was refused entry.

Then in 1913 four courageous young women (Gwynneth Bebb, Lucy Nettlefold, Maud Ingram and Karin Costelloe) decided to take the Law Society to court arguing they should be admitted to its preliminary examinations on the basis that a woman was a “person” within the meaning of the Solicitors Act 1843 and so was entitled to join the profession.

The women were not successful in their legal challenge with the judge ruling, in the famous case of Bebb v The Law Society (1913)’ that women were unable to carry out public functions unless parliament changed the law. However the publicity generated by the case did help the campaign for women’s eventual admission to the legal profession in 1919.

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919

With the coming of peace in 1918, it was recognised that women had allowed the legal work of the country to continue during the First World War through their work in legal offices up and down the country. It also became clear that in order for the legal profession to continue, the ongoing participation of women in the profession was necessary as so many young men had been killed in the Great War.

Following the end of hostilities in November 1918, all the major political parties promised to commit to equality in their manifestos for the upcoming December election. These pledges led to the introduction of a bill to permit women to hold any office or enter or carry on a civil profession or vocation and which eventually became law on 23rd December 1919.

For the first time women could not only become lawyers but also accountants, architects, surveyors and veterinary surgeons, amongst other professions.

The first women solicitors

On 18 December 1922, Carrie Morrison became the first woman to be admitted as a solicitor in England. A graduate of Girton College Cambridge, she had served during the 1914-18 war in the War Office and the Army of the Black Sea at Constantinople. She would go on to practise for over 30 years until her death in February 1950.

Three other women were also admitted to the profession at the same time including Maud Croft who had been involved in the Bebb case. She was the first woman to take out a Practising Certificate and set up in practise with her brother and her husband and also practised for over 30 years until 1955.

However in the decades following 1919, the rules of the Law Society remained patronising and antiquated by modern standards with many members still not in favour women joining the profession. Women would sit their exams separately from their male counterparts and although a woman could bring her non-lawyer husband to lunch at the Law Society, she was prohibited from bringing a female guest.

Slow progress

It continued to be an uphill struggle for many aspiring women to fulfil their dream of becoming a lawyer. The reality for many women was that if they did not have a father or husband who was a lawyer, it was financially difficult if not impossible for them to get articles to qualify. This was due to the yearly premium of between about 300 and 500 guineas (£15 to £25) which was quite a substantial sum at the time.

Although some wealthy parents were willing to invest in their sons to become solicitors, it was very rare for parents to spend the same amount for their daughters who had the same aspirations. In 1931, nine years after Carrie Morrison had been admitted, only about 100 women had qualified as solicitors and the number of women admitted to the profession continued to remain very low.

Between 1923 and 1946, only about 13 women qualified each year and by 1957, this figure had only increased to 1.97% which in real terms meant that there was just about 350 women in the profession. Moreover almost 50 years after women were first allowed to be admitted to the profession, in 1967, only 2.7% of solicitors holding practising certificates were women.

Changing attitudes

Helena Kennedy QC writing in her seminal book Eve was Framed, in 1992, said that many of the problems women faced in the legal profession were similar to those encountered in any occupation in terms of people getting jobs through the right social connections. However she said that women trying to progress in the legal profession faced additional hurdles of blatant discrimination, sexual harassment and the legal old boy’s network.

In order to combat such attitudes, many organisations such as the Association of Women Solicitors worked tirelessly to support their members who were already solicitors and those aspiring to join the solicitor’s profession. They campaigned to combat discrimination, unequal pay and raise awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace.

The growing voice of women in the profession, along with greater acceptance of professional women in the workplace generally, seemed to have had an impact as from the 1980s onwards, the statistics show a steady increase in the number of women successfully qualifying as solicitors.

Between 1977 and 1997, a period of 20 years, there was a three-fold increase in the number of women holding practising certificates. This stood at almost a third of the profession by 1997 and continued to rise in the new millennium. However it was as late as 2003 that solicitor Carolyn Kirby became the first woman President of the Law Society.

The picture today

Reflecting on the last 100 years shows the great triumphs and oppositions, struggles and challenges which many courageous women have faced to both enter and progress in the legal profession. It also shows the great determination and success not just for these women but for the profession as a whole.

Women with practising certificates outnumbered men by over 2000 in 2017 when they exceeded 50% of those holding practising certificates for the first time. However although women now account for more than half of all solicitors, only about a third of partners in law firms across the profession are female.

We have clearly come a long way in the last 100 years but there is no room for complacency until there is true parity at all levels in the profession for men and women alike.