Brighton Newsletter – February 2020

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100 years of female legal professionals

The close of 2019 brought with it a significant milestone. 100 years have passed since The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 allowed women to become (amongst other professions) solicitors, barristers, magistrates, and jurors for the first time. An advancement in equality and diversity in the legal workplace – yes, and of course rightly so – but is it cause for complete celebration? Has the passage of a century seen a fundamental and desirable change in the make-up of our legal professionals, at all levels of the legal profession?

It’s interesting to note that, at the time the 1919 legislation came into force, not everyone appreciated the significance it would have to open up innumerable employment avenues for women – particularly higher-skilled professions such as solicitors and barristers. Lord Buckmaster, an influential man of his time, stated : “Nobody thinks that this bill is going to flood the legal profession with women. It will enable a few women, who are peculiarly qualified, to earn an honourable living”.

If Lord Buckmaster was still alive today, he would surely be shocked by the inaccuracy of his own prediction. According to SRA data most recently compiled in 2017, 48% of all lawyers in law firms are women. Regarding the other staff working in law firms, women comprise 75% of the workforce. From my own experience practising as a Residential Conveyancing Solicitor, in a team of 10 solicitors, 70% were women. It’s clear that The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 has resulted in a fundamental change to the legal profession, far beyond what the law makers anticipated at the time.

Perhaps the most pertinent benchmark of equality and diversity in any workforce is to look at the most senior-end of the profession. Do the female 48% of all lawyers in law firms have fair, equal, and desirable access to partnership positions? According to the 2017 SRA data, 59% of non-partner solicitors are women, compared to just 1-in-3 partners. With this data, it’s clear that the passage of a century hasn’t yet resulted in complete equality at all levels of the legal profession. This is most apparent in the largest law firms (i.e. those with a minimum of 50 partners), in which women account for only 29% of those to have reached partnership status.

Looking forward, the trends are positive, and there are signs over the last decade that the gender imbalance at partnership level is reducing, and that female lawyers therefore have increasingly wider and open access to all levels of legal practice. It’ll be interesting to see how profound a change in gender equality there will be come the end of the next decade.