In our search for stories of legal pioneers, we came across this interview with Carrie Morrison, the first woman to be admitted to the Solicitors Roll in 1922, published in the Dundee Evening Telegraph on Tuesday 31 October 1922.
“Started by accident”
“I dropped into the work by accident; she said. ‘I had tried teaching but hated it, and that was bad for the children I had to teach. Then I took a secretarial course, hoping to get a job as a political secretary. During my war work at the Military Permit Office, however, I met Mr Alfred Baker, to whom I am articled. He told me that he would give me a post in his office after the war without thinking of making me a solicitor. The War Office offered me work in Constantinople however and I took that. When I returned, the Women’s Sex Disqualification Bill had been passed and Mr Baker agreed to waive a premium to give me a salary for my work as solicitor’s clerk.”
“The rough and tumble”
“Some of the solicitors tell me that I shall have a big divorce practice, but that is just what I do not want. Another solicitor said, however, that women do not mind going to a man with divorce cases so that they will not necessarily flock to me. I like common law best – litigation in the kind’s bench. I like the knotty points in commercial cases. Men say the law is too rough and tumble for women but I’ve had that in the Permit office. I like crime also; I think a woman solicitor would e useful in crimes which come under the Children Act.”
Just a few years into women being allowed to take the Law Society examinations to become solicitors and to embark on their articles, the number of women applying was considerably less than expected.
Carrie Morrison was of the view that women were prevented from applying by the prohibitive cost: “It is thought that the cost of becoming a solicitor- about £1000 – is proving too great a handicap at the present time”.
These are excerpts from the First 100 Year’s video interview with June Venters QC, first woman solicitor to be appointed a Queen’s Counsel. The video can be found here.
What happened was that the solicitors firm where I was working, one morning, on a Monday called me in to say they were closing the department and so we were going to be made redundant. I asked if I could go for a walk, and ended up in the office of a friend of mine who was going to Law School the following Monday. Now in those days you had to apply three years in advance to go to Law School. So I was sitting in her office feeling terribly sorry for myself and I think I was crying as well, and her boss who I’d never met before came into the room and asked what was going on, and what was wrong. And I told him. And he said ‘well, have you rung the Law School, to see if you could go on Monday?’ and I just shrugged my shoulders and said ‘well, it’s out of the question’. And I promise you this is what happened. He rang. He just about managed to get my name written down properly to say he had this young lady here [who] would like to go to Law School [and] what was the chances of joining on Monday? The initial reaction he got was ‘you must be joking’, and as he was talking, she then said ‘you’ll never believe this. We’ve been handed a cancellation. If she wants to go, she starts on Monday.’ And that’s how I went to Law School.
I opened [my firm] in Camberwell, on Camberwell Green, and I was surrounded by solicitors’ practices, all of which were owned by men. And there would be constant rumour and gossip that I was awful to work for, [that] I was really a hard task master, and no-one would never want to work for me, and so on, and so on, and so on. And at the end of the day I formed the view as I’ve always done, [that] I’ve got to demonstrate by action because [there is] no point in just simply denying those sort of allegations because at the end of the day, you’ve got to prove them. And I think the fact that I’ve had staff working for me for ten, twelve, fourteen years speaks for itself. But of course that had to develop over a period of time, but yes, that was the sort of thing I would get. And there would be equally suggestions to clients that they didn’t want to come to me because I wasn’t going to be able to deal with this, that or the other. And yes, yes, I was aware of what was going on, but I saw it as fierce competition, at my age looking back, [but] it was probably worse than that, and it was probably [gender] discrimination.
I’ve always valued male and female solicitors and I’ve never set out ever to positively discriminate in favour of women. I’ve always had an open interview and open application, and I’ve selected who I’ve thought was the best at the time. So I’ve not operated positive discrimination. But I think that on a personal level, I’ve been able to bring to my professional qualification, my own life experiences. I believe that my personality is a genuinely nurturing personality. That’s not to say that I’m sure a lot of men aren’t nurturing as well, but I think women have an awful lot to offer and I just think it’s a great shame that even in today’s times that’s not recognised and elevated to the same position as a man.
Oh gosh, my very first time I can tell you exactly, it was disastrous. My very first trial I was in the Magistrates Court, and I was so committed to my client, and making sure I’d prepared the case properly and everything else, that when he came to give his evidence he was half way through, and of course he started contradicting himself, at which point I jumped to my feet to correct him and I had to be told in no uncertain terms by the then Stipendiary Magistrate, ‘Ms Venters, your client is giving evidence, sit down’. So, yes, I wanted to crawl under a table and die. So I’ll never forget that.
I think, well, the thing I always say to youngsters when I talk to them coming into the profession, [is to] always remember that you have to prepare, because if you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail. So, the first thing that makes a good advocate is preparation. You cannot go into a court and expect to represent your client and to make oral representations to the judge or to question a witness, unless you know your case and you’ve got to know it well, so preparation first.
Second, I think you have to have a passion. You have to enjoy expressing yourself verbally. I think you have to be able to have a rapport. I think that when we see a lot of programmes on the television very often you will see the barrister or the solicitor portrayed in a way that actually isn’t always completely accurate. Because what we always say again, when we train advocates, is to have a conversation with the judge. You’re not lecturing the judge. You’re not shouting at the judge. You’re actually trying to engage the judge in dialogue, because you’re trying to persuade the judge to come round to your way of thinking, and if you want to persuade someone, the art of persuasion is the approach that you adopt. And although there is a time and a place for an aggressive approach at times, I try to live my life with the policy of there’s more bees with honey than with vinegar. And so when I cross-examine a witness, I tend not to go in aggressively, certainly not at the beginning, because I’d rather question them in a way that I’m entering into a dialogue with them, rather than making them immediately defensive, and them not giving me the answers that I’m seeking.
I think that on receiving the notification that I had been appointed the first woman solicitor QC, I obviously was delighted personally, but I began to realise I think over a period of a few days, the reaction from my colleagues really, because I hadn’t realised when I received the notification that it was going to be such a historical event if you like. But I began to realise that actually this was the first time a woman solicitor had become a silk, and I think when I made my speech, which I did in celebration of this, I spoke about how I hoped that I wouldn’t remain the first, or at least I wouldn’t remain on my own as the first, for too long. But I think in the [last] ten years, I’m right in saying, there’s only one other woman solicitor QC. And that’s a great shame. There’s a lot of women that I know, in my profession, that would easily qualify as a silk.
Can I begin with a male model, because I think this was influential, and it’s also another really sad story actually, and when I say sad, I mean pathetic, not sad as in unhappy. But when I was at Law School, I was twenty-one, and Lord Denning was still sitting and would sit in the Court of Appeal, and I would for my sins often go and watch him, because I was absolutely in awe of him, and of course when I was at Law School, so many cases that we had to hear about and learn, he was the Presiding Judge. So I felt that he was very important in my learning, and there came a point when he had written a book, and he was signing autographs and I queued for almost two hours to get this judge’s autograph, and I’ve still got the book at home. And when I told my friends and I was really quite proud of what I’d achieved with this autograph, I think they all thought I was completely round the twist, and they could have understood me lining up for Rod Stewart, but not for Lord Denning. So he was my role model if you like, not that I ever aspired to be anywhere near as able as him. But he certainly gave me a great deal of enthusiasm for the law and social justice.
Who’s my role model now? I think I’d have to say without hesitation Baroness Hale. I’ve appeared in front of her, many years ago, when she was in the High Court, and in the Court of Appeal. And to see her rise to the Supreme Court, I’m absolutely delighted. I’m very proud that I had the opportunity in the past to appear in front of her. I’d love to have that opportunity again, but appearing in the Supreme Court doesn’t come easily. And I would love to see her become the top one in the Supreme Court, and that’s not to say that I don’t think that the men there are all very worthy, but what an achievement that would be.
We’ve got a long way to go I think. I think that yes, we have made improvements, and I think [in] my practice there’s complete equality. It makes not a jot of difference whether you’re male or female. You get paid the salary for the work that you’re doing. I don’t think that’s the same in the larger practices, and from what I’ve heard and read, assuming that it’s all reliable. I think that’s a great shame and I think we need to really move forward on that. Whether we will achieve complete equality in my lifetime, I don’t know, but I would like to see it.
This week we heard the sad news that Frances Murphy – the former corporate head at Slaughter and May – has died after a long illness.
The firm’s senior partner Steve Cooke said: This is a very sad day. The news was received with great sorrow by everyone here. Frances was one of the most outstanding corporate lawyers in the City and made an exceptional contribution to the firm. She held the respect of the business community and had a huge reputation in the global legal market. We will really miss her. Our thoughts are with her family.”
Frances Murphy arrived at Slaughter and May in 1981, and was made partner in 1990. She went on to be corporate head in 2008.
The First 100 Years interviewed Frances in late 2015. The video can be found here. Always a champion of women in law, but equally always focusing on talent not gender, she spoke in detail about her incredible legal career in the heart of the City, going right back to student days in Sheffield.
As we mourn the death of one of Britain’s finest corporate lawyers, here are a few extracts that interview where Frances talks about becoming a lawyer, doing deals and family.
I decided to be a lawyer before I filled in my UCCA form. Part of that was wanting to have a profession, and wanting to be self-sufficient. If you looked at what was available to women, law seemed a good opportunity. So I filled in my UCCA form, and I had an offer from Sheffield, and it was far enough away from home, and I thought it would be fun! I met two of my closest friends on that first day, and they are still to this day some of my closest friends.
I knew I wanted to work in the City. I thought it sounded interesting, but I knew nothing about the City. I can remember turning up here in the very early days, and somebody talking to me about a bond issue, and me saying ‘what’s a bond issue?’ I had no background in business.
I’ve been very lucky at Slaughter and May, because we don’t narrow down people into little boxes. You can do a wide range of things. That makes it interesting, and makes you keep thinking, and learning, and that’s good for everybody. I have done a lot of deals over the years. None of them are solo events, they’re all done with teams of people, and you couldn’t do them by yourself, and anyone who thinks they could is foolish in my view. But two sets of deals I suppose really stand out.
The deals I did with the Williams Holdings, which were acquisition and disposal, after acquisition and disposal, and almost never ending for about fifteen years … they were fantastic experiences and all different. Some large, some small, some public, some private. So that whole series of deals with that team, it was a very close knit team there, was great, and I learnt a lot about business doing those deals, and how to negotiate which is a very important skill.
The other very important client to me since the Eighties, still is a client today, is Santander Abbey National as they were. I was lucky enough to work on the team that demutualised Abbey, and that was the first building society ever to go through the demutualising process. And of course there was no road map as to how to do it. We made it up as went along really – so that was a really interesting deal.
I like deals, I like solving a problem, I like, you know, reaching a negotiation on something. I like everyone to walk away feeling they’ve got a good deal at the end of the day. That’s also a part of the fun. There’s a huge sense of relief when the deal’s actually signed or closed, you know, you actually got it through.”
I think there is a lot of media talk about gender that is sometimes overdone. Not just in the law. I do think there’s quite a lot of froth. We’d obviously like to keep more women, because they’re fifty percent of our talent pool, we invest a lot of money in them when they come and train with us, and so if you were looking at it purely as a business decision, it just doesn’t make sense to say ‘well, we can afford to wave goodbye to the women’. So my question is how do you fix the system to make it work better for men and women who actually all want to have a real life as well as a professional life.
I think my life became much easier when I got married, because I had someone who was really supportive. He never saw childcare as my job, it was our job, and never saw my job as my job. If I needed him to come along to an event, or talk to a client, he’s been fantastic so choosing the right person to marry or settle down with is one of life’s most important decisions. Much more so than becoming a partner or anything else, you know.