2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which made it, for the first time, possible for women to qualify as barristers or solicitors. Four women from Oxbridge who had received first class degrees were finally allowed to pass their Solicitors exams to become lawyers.
We all remember the case of Gwyneth Bebb, a student at Hugh’s College Oxford, who received first-class marks in her jurisprudence course. However, at this time, women were not awarded degrees, so she was unable to formally graduate. After her application to the SRA to undertake the solicitor’s exam was refused, herself and her three fellow applicants brought an action against the Law Society, asking for a declaration that she was a “person” within the meaning of the Solicitors Act 1843.
The court in their judgement took time recognising their place within the UK constitution, i.e. that this was a matter for Parliament and not for the courts to legislate. We can all appreciate the frustration in seeing the courts discuss the “long uniform and uninterrupted” common law principle that women cannot be attorneys-at-law.
100 years on, we have come a long way. Women make up 48% of all lawyers in law firms. However, the gap becomes more prominent when referencing seniority. Women make up 59% of non-partner solicitors compared to just 33% of partners. The larger the firm; the greater the discrepancy. When surveying the largest law firms with over 50 partners, only 29% of partners are female.
To mark the occasion:
Lady Hale, the President of the Supreme Court, has got herself a double-page spread in Vogue. She describes herself as being “very humble, absolutely staggered” to have become a role model for women in the legal profession.
“This is not what I set out in life to be — but it’s where I happen to be. I do feel I’ve got to set a good example, both in terms of doing a good job, but also in terms of encouraging young women to make the most of themselves.”