It might be 2014, but we’re still hearing of firsts for women taking up roles in the legal profession.
This year, Sonya Leydecker became the first female co-CEO of a leading law firm – Herbert Smith Freehills. She most certainly isn’t a lone female voice at the top: Herbert Smith Freehills now has 100 women in their partnership – 21.5 per cent of the total.
To track the changing role of women in the legal profession, legal business Obelisk, in partnership with the Law Society, this month launched First 100 Years, a video history project to celebrate the past and change the future of the profession.
Research so far by the First 100 Years project shows that it wasn’t until 1981 that a woman was appointed a partner in a leading law firm. She was in a lonely position – when the firm released a photo the following year to celebrate their centenary, she was still the only visible female presence of the firm, in the middle of a group of 50 or so men.
This photograph was spotted by Dana Denis-Smith, CEO of Obelisk, a business built around ex-City lawyers looking to return to the workplace to continue their professional journey after a career break. It was that with the image in mind the First 100 Years project was conceived.
First 100 Years is an ambitious multimedia project, looking to make information on women in the law accessible to all in a visual, structured and engaging way.
The project aims to conduct and publish interviews with at least 100 leading women in the profession over the next five years, record written biographies and photographic content of women pioneers and publish stories from both men and women of female lawyers that have inspired them in their legal careers.
The timeline put together so far by the First 100 Years project shows the bare outline of the story so far.
In the 1950s, women made inroads into positions in the courts, with the first women appointed KCs in 1949, and the first recorder appointment following shortly thereafter in 1956.
However, facts are proving harder to uncover on the solicitor’s side of the profession, especially so in the in-house roles. The project is looking to hear from and fill in the details of all the women firsts in all types of law firms and in house positions.
We are counting on the members of the profession to share with us their stories, to correct and add to the timeline so far, and to contribute as many inspirational stories as possible. And, as importantly, to share the First 100 Years stories as widely as possible.
Without hearing and collating these individual stories, both past and present, it is difficult to understand what the future of women in the profession really looks like. Without assessing how far we have come, it is hard to stand back and consider what still needs to change.
59.1 per cent of those admitted to the Law Society are now women (as per latest stats at 2011), but only 18 per cent of QCs and 8 per cent of court of appeal judges are female.
We cannot escape the fact that women enter the profession in higher numbers than men and, at the current pace, their progression up the partnership ranks remains painfully slow. We are constantly preoccupied by the negligible change in the percentage numbers of women at the top of the legal profession. By setting the debate in a historical context, it is easier to see the rapid rise of women in the profession in the last 30 years, as well as how we can affect change in the future.
This article was written by Dana Denis-Smith and Rachel Buchanan.
First 100 Years is looking to hear from all members of the profession about women that inspired their career, as well as adding to the timeline by discovering law firm heritage, including any early pioneers or firsts for women that have not yet been included.
The project is also searching for biographies, photographs and stories of inspirational women across the last 95 years, so please contact the project if you can assist.
Follow First 100 Years on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, or email your stories and comments to [email protected]0years.org.uk
This article was published on http://www.lawsociety.org.uk/support-services/advice/articles/first-100-years/**This article has been edited on 7 September 2016 to update the First 100 Years’ new email address.