The First 100 Years Project

Published 30th June 2014

To change the future, first celebrate the past

Dana Denis-Smith talks about what inspired the First 100 Years Project:

A wonderful group image captured my imagination in 2013 – it was a photograph of the partners of city law firm Herbert Smith (now Herbert Smith Freehills) dating from 1982, marking the firm’s centenary at Grocer’s Hall in London. In the middle of the group of 50 or so men, there was a blue-clad woman – the only visible female partner of the firm. Of course, this tells the story of its day – not dissimilar to that of, say, prime-minister Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet photographs, in which she, too, is the only woman. Many of the leading women in law practising in the 1970s and 1980s would have found themselves similarly lonely in professional circles. To me, this 1982 image, taken within my lifetime, encapsulates not a long lost past, but the professional journey of women that are still active in the legal profession today. It made me realise that without hearing more individual voices – past and present – it will be difficult to understand what the future of women in the profession will really look like. Thus, the “First 100 years” project was born.

We have come a long way since 1982. Herbert Smith itself now counts as many as 100 women partners among its ranks, 21.5% of the total partnership globally and, in 2014, it appointed a woman co-CEO. But 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.

The First 100 years project is the first ever project dedicated to the women in the legal profession that aims to chart their progress over  the last 100 years. It is the most ambitious multimedia project, looking to make accessible to all, information on women in the law in a visual, structured and engaging way. The project is a partnership between Obelisk and the Law Society. We are aiming to create an interactive and engaging story of professional women that can inspire the generations that are coming through, as well as to record the progress of women in the profession in video interviews that will be a valuable resource in the future.

We would like to hear from you if you can contribute to the project. We are not just interested in hearing from women: if your story features an inspirational woman in your career, we want to hear from you too. Get in touch with us at Obelisk or on yourstory@first100years.org.uk.