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Women solicitors – how far we’ve come. The 100 year countdown

A hundred years ago there were no women solicitors in Britain. There were no women barristers, judges or jurors. If a woman appeared in court as either an accused defending herself, or as a plaintiff seeking justice she’d find only male faces surrounding her.

The British legal profession was a wholly masculine affair, in 1917, even though most men had been called up to fight in a world war which left law firms reliant on the work of women. Female legal clerks ensured practices continued to function and the wheels of justice continued to turn. Despite this, Parliament was still debating whether a woman was capable by virtue of her sex, of being considered a “person”.

In 1917, Lord Stanley Buckmaster introduced a parliamentary bill which he hoped would finally remove any impediment to women becoming lawyers. There was great support for his actions, women themselves had been waging a significant war for recognition in the legal world for a number of years. Four years earlier in 1913, four women applied to the Law Society (the body who govern the profession of solicitor) to sit the preliminary exams which would allow them to enter the profession. Gwyneth Bebb, Maud Ingram, Lucy Nettleford and Karin Costello were extraordinary bright, academically capable women who would be a credit to any profession, but despite these qualities the Law Society did not allow them to sit the exams because the law didn’t consider a woman to be a “person”.

Gwyneth Bebb had read law at Oxford and been awarded final marks which would have given her the highest possible qualification but because she was a woman she wasn’t awarded a degree or allowed to graduate. When the Law Society refused her request to take their exams she was chosen to challenge their decision and to use the law to do it. Her case was argued in the High Court by Lord Buckmaster. The Court considered the case a somewhat novel and startling application, to try and compel the Law Society to admit a lady to the examinations so she could become a solicitor. All arguments made by her barrister (who a year later would serve as Lord Chancellor in a liberal government) failed and the position remained that in law a woman was incapable of executing a public office.

Lord Buckmaster and all those supporting women in entering the legal profession were unsuccessful and his bill failed to pass, in 1917. Attempts were made the following year but once again they failed. It took another year for the Law Society to allow women to finally sit the exams which would allow them to become solicitors. That same year, 1919, Parliament amended the law and introduced the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. With this short piece of legislation women finally entered the legal profession, sex and marriage no longer being deemed disqualifications. As a result, women could finally become solicitors, magistrates, judges and jurors.

Of the original four women who applied to sit the Law Society examinations in 1913 only one went on to enter the profession. Maud Ingram, by then married and known as Maud Croft applied in 1922 along with three other women, Carrie Morrison, Mary Pickup and Mary Sykes to become solicitors having spent the required time as articled clerks and having passed all of the necessary exams. However, Maud had to wait until January 1923 to call herself a solicitor and the honour fell to Carrie Morrison to be named the first woman solicitor in England and Wales, her articles having finished earlier than the rest.

When addressing parliament in 1919 in anticipation of the new law Lord Buckmaster said, “Nobody thinks that the passage of 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 in the practice of the law.” He was right, most of those capable of entering the profession already had family members in the law and the number of women solicitors remained low for many years.

It is humbling to think of the struggle women had, how hard they fought to be awarded an education and to be considered a “person”. It seems shocking by today’s standards. Their struggle is inspirational and not to be underestimated.

Mary Pickup, one of the first women to qualify as a solicitor was a mother when she entered the profession and had worked for many years in her husband’s firm. She must have been exceptional in her dedication and determination to become a solicitor given that it has only been in the recent past women in any significant numbers have been able to carry on a career having had a family. Gwyneth Bebb abandoned her hopes of becoming a solicitor and in 1921, just as she was about to become one of the first female barristers, she died following complications after giving birth to her second child. 100 years ago the lives of women were difficult and hard. They still are for many.

Forty years ago when the law firm I work for, Hodge Jones and Allen, was set up only 7% of solicitors in England and Wales were women. Today, almost half of all the profession are female. At Hodge Jones and Allen we have over 100 women solicitors, trainee solicitors and paralegals not to mention those women who work industriously every day in the running of the firm.

As we enter 2018 women lawyers have been afforded a great opportunity, the chance to plan the 100 year party. I hope we celebrate in style.