I qualified as a solicitor in 1991 but before then, I had been the first person in my extended family to go to university. My grandparents were immigrants who had come to England before the second world war and raised a large family in which the thought of going to university had simply not been entertained: getting a job and contributing to the family finances had been their priority.
I would never have made it to university without a full educational grant and I still feel thankful for that. When I arrived at my first seat at a firm in a northern city one of the partners looked me up and down and commented, “I am sure you are looking forward to acquiring a professional wardrobe…” and the horror I felt then has never completely faded away. Even now, I follow the adage, ‘don’t dress for the job you have, but for the job you want’ and ensure that I am never less than perfectly turned out each day for work. At that time, I simply had no money and my family couldn’t help: I applied for a C&A store card and bought suits from there – I was determined to ensure I looked the part from then on – even if it was on a tiny budget.
The hard work had already been done by women in my parents’ generation and I felt as though I stood on the cusp of something quite extraordinary: that parity with men in the legal profession would be attainable in the near future. I remember quite clearly being sent on a training course where I was the only woman and giving a presentation entitled ‘women in the law’ in which I had a graph illustrating the growing number of women qualifying as solicitors.
I moved firms to a more suburban practice where clients would call in to the office and ask for the ‘lady solicitor’ (there were three female solicitors in the office, the other two being very feisty women about ten years older than me) or would ask how old I was and when I would qualify. Working briefly on the duty solicitor rota at the magistrates’ court, crusty old defendants would ask me when my boss was coming to represent them… I took it all with good humour and enjoyed assuring them that I would be their representative and that really, I did know what I was doing…
But occasionally, I felt as though I had plunged back into the 1950s. The senior partner had banned women from wearing trousers in the office and I sometimes suspected that I was taken along to see corporate clients more for decoration than my legal skills. Of course, I made sure that my legal skills were demonstrated, but even so… there was one event which still makes me angry now, over 25 years later: the firm was pitching for some corporate work and we had put together a bid document and it contained biographies for each member of the legal team. I had worked on the document in its early stages, but had not seen the final version. When I did, I was taken aback. The biographies listed our extra-curricular interests: the men were all skiing or breeding horses, racing buggies or doing other manly things. My biography said that when I was not at work, I enjoyed homemaking. I objected furiously and pointed out that I had not been consulted, but the partner in charge of the bid simply laughed and there was nothing I could do about it.
I left private practice and went in-house where I am valued for my knowledge, skill and inter-personal skills. Times have changed, thank goodness.