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Friday, December 19, 1997 Published at 04:15 GMT


75 years of women solicitors

It is 75 years since the first female solicitor was admitted to the British legal profession. Four women passed the Law Society's examinations in 1922, and on December 18 that year the first woman solicitor was admitted.

To celebrate, four newly qualified female solicitors are taking part in a symbolic race along Chancery Lane to the Law Society on Thursday, in an event organised by the Association of Women Solicitors.

"We are well on the way to having a gender-balanced profession," said Philip Sycamore, president of the Law Society.

"However, we still have long way to go to ensure a profession that offers equal opportunity to all regardless of gender, race or social background."

Changing times

In 1913 the Law Society refused to allow four women to sit the Law Society examinations. The women took the case to the Court of Appeal. But in a famous case, Bebb v The Law Society, the Court of Appeal upheld the Law Society's decision. The Judge, Mr Justice Joyce, ruled that women were not "persons" within the meaning of the Solicitors Act of 1843.

It was not until 1919, when the Sex Disqualification Act was passed, that women were allowed to practice law.

The first women to pass their examination were Maud Crofts, Carrie Morrison, Mary Pickup and Mary Sykes in 1922.

Carrie Morrison finished her articles first out of the four women, and was the first woman to be admitted to the role of solicitor.

She and Maud Crofts were already no strangers to sex discrimination When they graduated from Girton College, Cambridge with First Class Honours, the university authorities refused to award them their degrees because they were women. Although they were allowed to study, attend lectures and sit exams, women could not hold degrees.

Maud Crofts, who was involved in the 1913 Court of Appeal case, was a prominent suffragette. When she went into practice with her father and brother, her clientele included wealthy and influential members of the women's suffrage movement.

Although these women were breaking new ground in Britain, their American counterparts had already pioneered the way. The first woman lawyer in the English-speaking world was Arabella Mansfield, who was admitted to the Iowa state bar in June 1869.

But in Britain, it continued to be an uphill struggle for women even after 1922. If women did not have fathers or husbands who were lawyers, it was often financially impossible for them to get articles, for which there was a yearly premium of something between 300-500 guineas (15-25).

Although wealthy parents may have been willing to invest in their sons, paying this amount for daughters was rare.

In 1931, nine years after Carrie Morrison had been admitted, only about 100 women had qualified as solicitors. The numbers continued to rise relatively slowly until the last decade or so. As recently as 1967, only 2.7% of solicitors holding certificates were women.

Neck and neck? Female lawyers today

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Almost a third of certificate-holding solicitors are now women. As the newly qualified women move up, this figure will get larger. Last year over half of new admissions were women.

Across the legal division though, female barristers are not doing quite so well: women make up 40% of new barristers.

Judges are even slower in catching up. Of 96 High Court Judges, only seven are women, and there is only one Lord Justice of Appeal from a total of 35. All 12 law lords are men.

Even in the generally lower paid profession of solicitors, a recent Law Society report found that female solicitors are paid substantially less than their male counterparts, and tend to work in smaller, less profitable practices.

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