By Ellie Cartlidge
The 23rd of December marks 100 years of women in law. It marks 100 years since women became practicing solicitors and barristers and to mark this occasion, on October 29, I was fortunate enough to meet some of the amazing women championing women’s issues within the legal system currently.
The Law Society in London hosted a conference to commemorate 100 years of women in law, through this, I had the opportunity to meet practicing solicitors and barristers and learn from their experiences as women working through the legal system and subsequently defying the concerns that women do not fit the characteristics of a business leader.
The conference opened with Christina Blacklaws, the 174th president of the Law Society of England and Wales, stating that ‘the power of gender equality’ can ‘transform the business of law’. The problem is, although we have come a long way over the past century, women within the legal system still have further to go. Only 31% of partners in England and Wales are women (based on research conducted by the Law Society) and in the larger law firms, these statistics are even lower. Some firms even struggle to achieve double figures. Not only this, women are experiencing everyday sexism in the workplace, feminine traits are negatively regarded, women are assumed to be more junior than a junior male colleague and are regularly asked to make the tea or the notes (to which most of the women in the room agreed). As the most inexperienced person in the room, I was aware that sexism in the profession was still a significant problem, but not to the extent that was being discussed in this conference. Even in 2019, 100 years since women were allowed to practice law, women are still underrepresented and Christina proposed a focus on female promotion and success planning and that women should have ‘level playing fields’ early on in their careers.
Every single woman in that room has experienced sexism and harassment within the legal profession and part of this conference was to share experiences with the aim to overcome this attitude in the workplace and have gender champions take responsibility for this sexism. Next in the conference Monica Burch, chair of the mentoring foundation, addressed the issue that men get promoted to partners after five or six years of practicing. She went on to explain that 75% of fee earning women are not partners compared to the 50% of fee earning men that are not partners. The Law Society has found that businesses who have more diverse boards perform above average, so diversity is good for business.
During the conference, the panel (including Christina Blacklaws and Monica Burch) shared their own personal experiences and offered advice to students such as myself. Apply the three Ws. Wit, wisdom and witness.
To conclude, although the topic of sexism is quite bleak, things are still moving forward and are constantly improving. With regards to solutions, the panel explained that clients now drive the expectations within companies. If the clients drive the expectation for equality, then the firms will provide it. Career paths arguably no longer exist and young women who aim to be the future of the legal profession should remember to always push diversity, seek a mentor, this does not necessarily have to be a woman or someone who ‘looks like you’. They should also apply the process of “reverse mentoring,” women should give feedback to the senior partners to enable progress within the firms. This is what they argue will enable women to access more support in legal organisations.
Despite studying law for just five weeks at the time of this conference, these women referred to my generation and the next generation of law and hope that we as a collective will develop and prosper as a result of their experiences. It is safe to say, that after this conference, I was (and still am) unquestionably inspired and I hope others will be too.