One hundred years on since the first women were allowed to pass their law exams and practise as lawyers, Sarah French explores what it’s like to be a woman working in the profession today.

HELD aloft and supported by a sword as a symbol of authority, the scales of justice are an icon of fairness in our judicial system. They represent balance in the weighing of evidence – that both sides will have equal chance to tell their story and make their case before a verdict, that weighs the needs of the accused against the needs of society, is reached.

The blindfolded figure holding up the scales is Lady Justice, a picture of impartiality who administers justice without fear or favour, blind to prejudice and influence. Her origins date back to ancient Egypt and Greece – Themis was the Greek goddess of law, order and justice – but Lady Justice is generally accepted to be Lustitia, Themis’s opposite number in Rome.

All of this, therefore, makes it particularly ironic that women have been allowed to be lawyers in England for only the last 100 years.

Fifty years before this, the first woman in the US – Arabella Mansfield – was admitted to the bar in Iowa even though the bar exam was restricted to “males over 21”. Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Uruguay, the Philippines and Sweden followed.

Although Eliza Orme was, in 1888, the first woman in England to get a law degree, it wasn’t until 1919, when the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act came into force, that women were allowed to become lawyers, and could act on juries and as magistrates. It followed a protracted legal battle against The Law Society; once the barrier was broken down determined and intelligent women seized the opportunity to pursue their chosen career.

By 1922, Cambridge University graduates Carrie Morrison, Mary Pickup, Mary Sykes and prominent suffragette Maud Crofts became the first women to pass the Law Society examinations. Carrie completed her articles ahead of the others and so became the first woman to be admitted as a solicitor in England.

It was a momentous year, with Ivy Williams becoming the first English woman to be called to the bar and Helena Normanton practising as the first female barrister in England.

More recent times have seen equally significant steps forward. In 1965 Elizabeth Lane was appointed to the High Court while, in 2004 Lady Hale became the first female Lord of Appeal, going on to become the first female justice of the UK Supreme Court in 2009 and the court’s first female president in 2017.

Having overcome its hostility towards women joining the profession, The Law Society had, until last year, a female president, Christina Blacklaws.

Today, women make up about 51 per cent of practising solicitors and 62 per cent of new entrants to the profession. However, women still account for only 25 per cent of partners in law firms.

One practice in the North-East, however, is bucking this trend. BHP Law, which has offices in Darlington, Durham, Stockton, Newcastle and Tynemouth, has five female and four male partners with additional qualified staff made up of 28 women and seven men.

Among them are BHP’s own female pioneers. Helen Biglin, a partner and team leader in wills, trusts and probate, studied chemistry at Kings College London before opting for law as a career.

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“I wanted to be in a profession where I could interact with the public and provide help to people at vulnerable times of their lives hence why I ended up specialising in wills, trusts and probate, and the elderly,” she explains.

At two different firms during her training and in her first qualified role, all the partners Helen worked with were men. When she made partner at Walton Hardy & Clough in Darlington in 1995, she was the first to hold the position in the firm, which later merged to form BHP Law.

Helen adds: “Women, like men, do bring something different to a firm hence the need to have both on board. I believe the number of female trainees we have had over the past few years is testament that today, certainly outside the large city firms, women are pretty much on an even playing field.”

A more recent addition to the team at BHP Law, Amanda Adeola is also a partner in family law and a solicitor-advocate in higher courts civil proceedings. Last year she was recognised as Woman of the Year in awards to celebrate the contribution made by minority ethnic communities in the Tees Valley.

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Born in Nigeria, Amanda studied law in London. Since moving to the North-East just over a decade ago she has worked to inspire the legal profession to open up opportunities for the next generation of lawyers.

Nevertheless, she says there have been occasions when she has felt she hasn’t been taken seriously because she’s female. “Although this should not be happening in this day and age, sadly it does happen. There are other challenges faced by women in the profession and I have faced a few in my career, but being good at my job and dedicated to my clients speaks for itself.

“I do not hesitate to call out any situation which has arisen or may arise where I feel that I am not taken seriously. Being a woman should not make me any less of a solicitor.”

Amanda works to raise the profile of all young lawyers through her #meetayounglawyer platform on LinkedIn and, as regional representative of the North East Women Lawyers and Mothers Network, has taken the lead to support, encourage and inspire professional working mothers like herself.

She says: “There are glass ceilings and prejudices. It may not be obvious but it’s there and it’s about finding the right place where the colour of your skin or your gender doesn’t matter. It should only be about what you can bring to the table.”

It’s a message she tries to instil in young people when she speaks at schools and universities.

“We have got to change the narrative starting from there. If students here are saying ‘I don’t see anybody who looks like me professionally so I will have to move to the south’ then that’s a problem. I try to inspire and encourage those coming behind me and show that the only limitations are in your head.”

Work is still to be done in other areas. Equal pay, for example, remains a problem in the legal profession with pay differentials said to exceed the national average. Unconscious bias, difficulties around work-life balance and networking opportunities being male focused may be further obstacles to women’s career progression.

Amanda explains: “Women in particular worry about what will happen to their careers should they wish to become parents. Will they be promoted, will they get a pay rise, will they be treated the same as their male counterparts? Having a child should not change the status of a woman in a professional capacity. It should not have an impact on your progression at work and employees must recognise this and not indirectly discriminate.”

Employers also need to allow flexibility in working arrangements, not just for women but also for men with caring responsibilities, adds Amanda.

Dana Denis-Smith, a former lawyer who founded the First 100 Years project to commemorate the anniversary, says the last century has seen a revolution in the legal profession but the place of women across the legal profession still needs consolidating, with women seen not as newcomers but as a force for change.

She adds: “The biggest message to take into the Next 100 Years is that women in the legal profession are no longer a lone voice. Sure, there are still situations in which we find ourselves the only woman in the room and still company boards that don’t have a woman, but overall we have a whole safety net of like-minded women striving to achieve on an equal playing field.”