As one of the Inspirational Women in Law Award finalists, Georgina Wolfe submitted a short essay on ‘How can Women Shape the Future of the Legal Industry?’. She tells the story of her own experiences in the world of law, in particular at the Bar, and how women bring unique experiences and skills to the profession that need to be supported to tackle the attrition of women in law.
Emmeline Pankhurst said: ‘You must make women count as much as men’. She was right. Women are already reshaping the future of the legal industry by their very presence within it, as equals to the men they work alongside. By women working throughout the profession, from paralegal up to Supreme Court Justice, we will make our legal industry stronger, braver and, crucially, more representative of those we seek to help. If we have a profession which reflects the society we serve, people will see it as deserving their trust and confidence. This will improve what Lady Hale and others have called ‘democratic legitimacy’. We can do this by helping and supporting the women around us and those following behind. We must make the legal environment itself more welcoming to women.
Last year, I was counsel in an inquest into the death of a man who had died in police custody. There were three other female barristers in court. The hearing lasted three weeks and was, at times, challenging. But, despite the controversial subject matter, often sharply opposing positions and emotionally-charged evidence, the four of us supported one another throughout. We each acted fairly and fearlessly for our clients, attacked one another’s arguments and challenged witnesses. But there was no posturing; there was no bombast. On the contrary, where one advocate deserved it, we would compliment her. We were four women doing our jobs and learning from one another. It was a pleasure and an inspiration.
This, along with countless other experiences, has taught me that women bring myriad different skills to the practice of law. Many of these skills are shared by our male counterparts. But what cannot be shared is the very experience of being a woman and the understanding, perspective and talent that affords. This is not simply about the frequently-denigrated ‘soft skills’ (which are often, wrongly, underestimated), it is about the insight, humility and wisdom borne of the female experience. To have a representative legal industry, it is essential that these qualities are deployed across all levels of the solicitor’s profession, the Bar and ultimately the judiciary.
But is there really a problematic shortage of women in the legal industry? Women outnumber men on university degree courses. For some years now, equal numbers of men and women have been entering the profession (indeed, women now far outnumber men admitted to the roll of solicitors). But in 2015, although numbers of male and female solicitors were comparable, there were only 5,600 women barristers in practice compared to 10,239 men. The attrition rate for female barristers is very high. On the bench, things are worse. Although since October 2009, there has been a woman Justice of the Supreme Court, seven years later there is still only one. Across the rest of the judiciary, the 2015 figures showed that women represented only 25.2% of judges in the courts and 43.8% in tribunals.
How can we retain women and ensure that women are represented across the legal industry? Quite simply, we must support each other. As women we are often less naturally inclined to blow our own trumpets; it is all the more important therefore that we champion ourselves. We must empower the women we encounter. We must share our techniques for balancing career with family or social life with all our colleagues and look for ways to encourage alternative working. We must share best practices – not just from our firms and chambers, but from our lives. We must confront sexism wherever we see it – not just the outright examples of harassment or unequal pay, but also the ‘benevolent sexism’ that undermines women. Men and women alike must be able to look up and see inspiring women whose careers they would like to emulate.
Together, by our day-to-day actions and by using the advocacy skills we use for our clients, we can bring about crucial change. It is not a ‘women’s issue’; it is a battle that should unite the sexes. We have a real opportunity for the legal profession to be a trail blazer in the promotion of women into the upper echelons of the profession and in the fight for equal pay. As the primatologist Jane Goodall said ‘You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.’
The women who make up The First 100 Years Project fought for their individual places in a man’s world. They are our role models. Now we are the generation, the new role models, who can change the system from within.
About the author:
Georgina Wolfe was Called to the Bar in 2006. She practises police law, public law and human rights, employment and personal injury at 5 Essex Court. She has appeared in some of the landmark cases and public inquiries involving the police. She is the co-author of The Path to Pupillage and is a member of the Attorney General’s B Panel of Counsel. She is the youngest and first female Trustee of the Harold G Fox Scholarship. She regularly gives talks to those wishing to pursue a career at the Bar.