The Law Society marked the centenary of the first four women solicitors to be admitted to the profession with a reception at Chancery Lane last night. Guests and speakers were welcomed by Amandeep Khasriya, vice chair of the Law Society Women Solicitors Network.
Carrie Morrison, who was first to join the roll, was admitted on 18 December 1922. The other three, Maud Crofts, Mary Sykes and Mary Pickup were admitted in January 1923.
Attorney General Victoria Prentis KC MP urged guests to ‘Take a moment to look around you and think of how the first four women would have felt’.
Prentis recalled her time as the only woman litigator in the Government Legal Department, which she now superintends. That distinction ended with the arrival of her job share partner, also present at the reception. Now, 65% of GLD staff are now women, she noted, meaning they are at the forefront of advising government on challenging legal questions.
In a marked change of tone from that struck by her predecessor but one, home secretary Suella Braverman, Prentis stressed: ‘As Attorney General I feel very strongly that my first duty is to uphold the rule of law.’
Dana Denis-Smith, founder of the First 100 Years project, recalled the different attitudes that women faced on seeking to enter the profession. Lord Halsbury, who served three stints as Lord Chancellor, objected to the entry of women on the grounds that ‘women can’t write conciliatory letters’. By contrast, a lawyer known as The Concerning Solicitor, dubbed by Denis-Smith ‘the Secret Barrister of his day’ thought the difference between the ability of the sexes was insisted on only by ‘journalists, fools and priests’.
Denis-Smith gave an account of the first four women’s careers. She debunked the widely believed myth that the quartet had a race up Chancery Lane in which Carrie Morrison finished first. Morrison’s wartime service in intelligence was taken into account, cutting her time to qualification.
She concluded: ‘Understanding the historic context of the rise of women in law is critical to their future success – many of our generation will become role models in their own right; I hope they will continue to recognise they built their careers on the shoulders of giants who faced unimaginable obstacles – and oblivion – for simply asking for their place, as women and as equals, in the legal profession.’
Lubna Shuja, the first Asian and first Muslim Law Society president, and the seventh woman to hold the office, reflected that ‘the inclusion of women in the profession is a mixed picture’. While 60% of new admissions are women, Shuja noted that there are unequal outcomes on the ‘pay, retention and promotion of women solicitors’. Only 35% of law firm partners are women, representing only ‘an advance of 0.3% in a decade’, she added.
‘Increasing diversity within the legal profession is one of my personal ambitions,’ Shuja said, ‘and one of my formal presidential priorities, and this includes ensuring that women are well represented within all parts of the sector. I’ll be frank – the way the legal sector has historically operated did not lend itself to diversity and inclusion, and it will take a lot of effort – continued effort – to push through this agenda and see tangible change.’