In the lead up to International Women's Day, the Women's Networking Group (WNG) at Russell-Cooke recently hosted two impressive and ground breaking women lawyers to mark the First 100 Years of women in law. The evening was hosted by partner Fiona Read, one of Russell-Cooke's very own part time District Judges. Fiona introduced the evening by sharing the firm's own history of women in law including representing women involved in the suffragette movement and indeed what is now the WI.
Her Honour Judge Sapnara and Ms Madeleine Heggs spoke at the intimate event at The Law Society on 28th February to an audience of Russell-Cooke's female lawyers and their female guests, many of whom are themselves lawyers.
Her Honour Judge Sapnara, who is a Muslim born in Bangladesh, entered into an arranged marriage at 18 before studying law at the LSE then going to bar school. She went on to have an extremely successful career in family law at Coram Chambers and became the first person of Bangladeshi origin to achieve high judicial office. HHJ Sapnara shared her experiences of growing up in the East End of London and of the challenges associated with studying in a comprehensive school in which few students proceeded into higher education, being told by her comprehensive school teacher when expressing her wish to be a barrister "you have to be really smart Khatun." She eventually broke away with a small group of like-minded women to set up their own chambers in the East End. She has played a key role in the creation of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 and has become a campaigner for woman and equal rights for all within the Judiciary.
Madeleine Heggs, who celebrates her 90th birthday soon, qualified as a solicitor in 1954 and set up her own legal practice over 60 years ago as there was little opportunity for women within established law firms at the time. She was the first female Commissioner of National Insurance Tribunals in 1981 and retired at the age of 72. Madeleine shared how she enjoyed her career despite how different the profession was when she was in practice. Discrimination was not acknowledged by her as an issue. She was though an exceptional lawyer who succeeded in breaking down barriers, holding a judicial post for 20 years plus.
The Russell-Cooke WNG was founded a decade ago to help female lawyers at the firm to network with their female clients and co-professionals and other contacts.
Partner Fiona Read said: "In this centenary year of women lawyers it is important to celebrate the amazing advances that have been made. While we are far from parity for women and men across the profession, at Russell-Cooke we have a 41% female partnership. This is far above the vast majority of our peers in top 100 law firms and even more unusual is our board that is 44% female. However we recognise there is still progress to be made and it is important for younger female lawyers to have role models to demonstrate what can be achieved with determination and the right attitude."