Eliza Orme (1848-1937) was the first woman in England to earn a law degree, in 1888 at University College London. She was 39 years old and already unofficially ‘practicing’ law out of an office in London’s Chancery Lane, where she and a colleague prepared the paperwork for property transactions, patent registrations, wills, settlements, and mortgages.
“I “devilled” for about a dozen conveyancing counsel who kept me busily employed on drafts they wanted done in a hurry, and for twenty-five years I found it both an interesting and profitable employment”, Orme recalled in a 1901 interview. This support-level work was the only legal employment open to women, who were not permitted either to be called to the bar or join the Law Society. It was only a small part, however, of Eliza Orme’s reputation as a public figure.
The daughter of an upper-middle-class London family, she began attending lectures at UCL in 1871. In 1875, Orme set up chambers in Chancery Lane with a partner and fellow UCL student, Mary Richardson. In 1879, Orme apprenticed in the chambers of a sympathetic barrister and hoped to be admitted as a ‘conveyancer under the bar’, but this position remained closed to her.