A Century of Women Solicitors

These days it is common to be greeted by a female solicitor when you have dealings with the law, but this would not have been the case 100 years ago. December 18th, 2022, marked the centenary of the first female lawyer being admitted to the Solicitors’ Role, when Carrie Morrison was allowed to join the profession by the Law Society of England and Wales. Three others followed in her footsteps early in 1923: Maud Crofts, Mary Pickup and Mary Sykes. This marked the culmination of decades of struggle by the Suffragette movement and others to put women on an equal footing with men.

Almost 50 years earlier in 1878, Janet Wood had been the first woman to complete a law degree in the UK, at Girton College, Cambridge. She was not, however, permitted to sit the same exam as her male colleagues but had to take an equivalent standard “Special Exam for Women”. In the same year University College London became the first institution to admit women to their law degree course on an equal basis as male students. Eliza Orme went on to become the first woman to be awarded a law degree in England when she sat her exams at University College London in 1888. Others followed in her wake, including the Suffragette Christabel Pankhurst, but it was not until 1913 when the next milestone in women’s emancipation was reached.

In that year Gwyneth Bebb and three other women began legal action against the Law Society to allow them to join the profession. Under the Solicitors Act 1843 women were not classed as “persons” and therefore could not be admitted to the Law Society. Their attempt to overturn the law was denied and the decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal in December, 1913. The Court’s reasoning was that since only men had ever become solicitors previously, women should not be able to do so in the future. It argued that only an Act of Parliament could change the law. Undeterred, Gwyneth Bebb continued to activate for change, and the publicity and broad support from the press finally won the day six years later. The passage by Parliament of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 now allowed the admission of women to the legal profession. Women solicitors would struggle to make their mark in such a male-dominated occupation until the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, which made it illegal to employ or promote a male worker who was less qualified or experienced than his female counterpart. The position of women in society was further enhanced when this act was superseded by the Equality Act 2010.

The university admissions service UCAS says that in 2019 women accounted for 69% of all law course applicants. Data supplied by the Solicitor’s Regulation Authority in April last year shows that women now make up more than half the profession, with 52% of solicitors being female. However, a wide gap remains when it comes to women partners or in senior positions, with men still dominating in larger businesses.

If anyone wants proof that a successful solicitor’s practice can be run by a woman they need look no further than here at Bretherton Law. The firm has been run since 2004 by Sandra Bradley as sole partner or director, and continues to thrive as an independent business serving the local community.

Bretherton Law is authorised and regulated by the Solicitor’s Regulation Authority. We are accredited members of the Law Society for child law and conveyancing, and are members of Resolution.

For further information

The Women who Broke the Work Barrier

Diverse Legal Profession