A level playing field?

15 / 01 / 2020

23 December 2019 marked 100 years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 which allowed women to become solicitors, barristers and sit as magistrates, judges or on juries.

This milestone has been widely celebrated in the national and legal press and by campaigns such as ‘The First Hundred Years’ https://first100years.org.uk/ marking the journey of women in law since 1919.

Following the 1919 Act in December 1922 the first four women passed the Law Society’s finals examinations, Carrie Morrison, Maud Crofts, Mary Elaine Sykes and Mary Elizabeth Pickup. Carrie Morrison was the first female solicitor admitted to the Solicitors Roll by the Law Society of England and Wales in December 1922.

Many important changes and landmarks supporting equal opportunities and greater inclusion have since taken place. To name a few:

  • Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 – this allowed all women over 21 to vote, giving women the same rights to vote as men.
  • Equal Pay Act 1970 – industrial action led to the passing of this piece of legislation, which made it illegal to pay women less than men for the same amount of work and to give women less favourable conditions of employment than men.
  • Sex Discrimination Act 1975 – made it illegal to discriminate against women in work, training and education. For the first time women had to be treated as equals by employers. Job adverts could no longer specify that an employer was looking for only a woman or a man for a specific role. The Act also outlawed discrimination against women seeking bank accounts, credit and loans in their own name.
  • Equality Act 2010 – this landmark piece of legislation champions equality of opportunity for all bringing 116 separate pieces of legislation into one Act. Previous separate pieces of legislation on sex, race, disability and employment discrimination were merged into one place.
  • Equality Act 2010 (Gender Pay Gap Information) Regulations 2017 – the Regulations require all companies employing more than 250 staff must publicly declare their salaries and gender pay gaps in the company. There is equivalent legislation covering public sector bodies and organisations.

In recent years the legal profession has worked hard to offer equal opportunities to all. Importantly the profile of those entering the profession has changed. It is this key fact which will lead to changes in years to come and importantly greater diversity in the future leaders, partners and higher ranks of the profession.

Law Society statistics show that there has been a steady increase of Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students accepted on to first degree law courses in England and Wales to 39.6% in 2018.  Representation of BAME groups continues to grow comprising 16.9% of solicitors (based on those with known ethnicity). 62.1% of newly admitted solicitors are women and women with practising certificates have outnumbered men since 2017.

At Wedlake Bell we are committed to fairness and a culture of equal opportunities for everyone who works at the firm. Wedlake Bell are signatories to the Law Society’s Diversity & Inclusion Charter and we have our own Equality and Diversity Committee which meets regularly to review all matters relating to diversity. There are networking groups for Social Mobility, Working Families, BAME, LGBT+ and Gender Equality and champions for Disability and Faith and Belief.

Wedlake Bell’s commitment to diversity and equality can be seen throughout the business. Kim Lalli was elected as the firm’s first female Senior Partner beginning her four year term in January 2017. Three of our eight board members are women and we are ranked ninth in the Top 100 Law Firm table 2016 complied by The Lawyer in terms of the percentage of equity partners who are female.

On the recruitment side, Wedlake Bell is committed to a number of initiatives including social mobility placement and mentoring schemes. These include the Law Society Diversity Access Scheme through which we support promising entrants from disadvantaged backgrounds or those who face exceptional obstacles to qualification by offering work placements at the firm and we also work with secondary schools in the Camden and Hackney areas through the Inspire! Education Business Partnership to provide work experience to young people, helping them to develop relevant work related skills. We have links with colleges giving opportunities to secretarial students and we offer apprenticeships, sponsoring the apprentices whilst they undertake IT qualifications.

We’ve come a long way in the last 100 years but I’m sure there will be many more milestones worthy of celebration during the next 100 years.