Is there no justice for women in the legal profession?

As two women lawyers bring suits alleging discrimination in favour of men, Grania Langdon-Down asks whether the glass ceiling will ever be breached.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
One senior woman solicitor came out of a partners' meeting seething with fury. "I have just been told I am not a team player - what they mean is I don't run on at half time with the oranges."

The legal profession's attitude towards women is currently in the dock after two senior women lawyers announced they were suing two of the highest law offices in the land for sex discrimination in their appointment policies.

The law is clearly an attractive profession for women. In the past 10 years, the number of women solicitors has increased by 166 per cent and today, just over half of all newly qualified solicitors are women, while they make up 40 per cent of new barristers.

But just how easy is it to succeed? Only a quarter of women solicitors are partners compared with 55 per cent of men, while the number of law firms with women managing partners hovers at about three. At the Bar, there are 63 women Queen's Counsels out of a total of 974 and only a tiny number of female heads of chambers.

The law has traditionally been seen as the stamping ground of the white, Oxbridge-educated male. Women breaching the ramparts often say they are steered towards "soft" areas, such as family and employment law. Those opting for commercial practice can find they are competing in a macho environment of who can work the longest hours and still go drinking afterwards.

That may sound like a caricature from the BBC legal drama This Life and it does not reflect the range of women's achievements within the profession. But it is also true that research by the Law Society found women solicitors are paid less than their male counterparts at every level of the profession.

In the past, challenging discriminatory treatment was seen as a quick way of committing professional suicide. However, there now appears to be a growing confidence among women lawyers that they do not have to accept the inequality and that they can fight back. And not just with their wardrobes, as an exhibition organised by the Law Society Gazette suggested this week. The real thing holding women lawyers back is the way they dress, the organisers claimed.

Last week, a barrister and part-time judge was found guilty of sexually harassing a woman pupil and fined pounds 500. Christopher Sutton-Mattocks, who is appealing against the ruling, is the first barrister to be disciplined by a Bar disciplinary tribunal for sexual harassment under new measures introduced two years ago. He has now stepped down from his position.

Josephine Hayes, chair of the Association of Women Barristers and a junior counsel in civil practice for 16 years, said it took considerable courage to bring a complaint. She should know - she announced last month that she was suing Attorney General John Morris for allegedly showing bias in favour of men when appointing lawyers to represent the Government in civil cases.

Two weeks earlier, solicitor Jane Coker, senior partner in a London immigration practice, filed an application at a tribunal accusing the Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine of Lairg and his department of operating an illegal "old boys' network" in the way he appointed his special adviser Garry Hart. The Lord Chancellor's Department will be contesting both cases.

While it may still be a man's world, women do make it to the top of the law tree. Cherie Booth QC combines a successful career with life as the Prime Minister's wife and mother of three children, Helena Kennedy QC is a distinguished barrister, television personality and mother. Heather Hallett QC, 48, took over as the first women chairman of the Bar Council on 1 January. A specialist in criminal law, she is married to a fellow QC and has two teenage sons.

"When I was called to the Bar in 1972, we were told you couldn't have women barristers because chambers did not have separate lavatories for them. And if a woman was taken on, they wouldn't take another one on immediately behind her because it might `unbalance' things.

"What really angered me was being patronised. I also suffered a degree of sexual harassment from men within and without the profession and I personally hope that is on the decrease. Things may not be perfect now but they are a great deal better than they were. From what I have seen of the system, I am not persuaded there is still an old boys' network - lawyers come from all sorts of backgrounds now."

Janet Gaymer, a solicitor for 25 years, is head of employment law at the London firm Simmons & Simmons. "It was positively helpful to be female when I started - because there were so few of us, people remembered you. I think women are now putting some cracks in the glass ceiling but it is made of reinforced glass."

Her daughter wants to become a lawyer and Mrs Gaymer said she kept warning her of the long hours and commitment required to succeed - "but it isn't putting her off," she said.

For many women lawyers, the greatest difficulties arise when they decide to start a family. Judith Willis, who runs the Association of Women Solicitors' confidential maternity helpline, has heard of at least four women being told by their firms to consider abortions, one even offering to pay for it. Over the last years, she has been getting an increasing number of calls from women who are pregnant but haven't yet told their firms.

"There seems to be a growing awareness that they need to be prepared to meet any problems head-on. While many firms have very good maternity policies, others see a woman of child-bearing age as a liability.

One young solicitor said: "I am looking for a new job but I am approaching 30 and I know many firms would choose an equally qualified man over me rather than risk I will soon be starting a family. The one thing is my favour is I am not married."

Barrister Margaret McCabe is organising next month's Woman Lawyer Conference, which is focusing on achieving a balance between work and home life.

"I was treated so badly when I had my daughter nine years ago. I was told to stay at home with the baby and considered a second class-citizen. I was amazed that people working in the law, in justice, could treat another person so horribly and I thought `I am going to do something about this'."

She said the old argument that it was only a matter of time before enough women came through the system was not enough on its own because a significant number of experienced women lawyers dropped out because of the difficulties in combining a career with childcare.

But attitudes were changing to help women have children and sustain their careers. There was also willingness at the top of the profession to promote a cultural change, backed by new equal opportunity procedures.

"Things are better now than they were five years ago and I am optimistic that we will see real improvements in the future. The law is a fantastic career for women - it is stimulating, it can be flexible and it is well paid. I would be so upset if I thought women weren't coming into the law because of what they had heard about harassment."

It can be hard to take, though. One young solicitor told a meeting of the Young Women Lawyers association that she had been sent by her law firm to accompany a client to a "table dancing" show at a London striptease club to celebrate the successful completion of a deal.

YWL committee member Tara Davies, a 28-year-old solicitor in a London practice, said there some women lawyers were opting out of private practice in favour of becoming in-house lawyers in industry, to avoid the macho culture of some law firms.

A YWL survey last year found 80 per cent of female law graduates believed they would encounter sexism in their law careers. However, nearly half of the 300 interviewed at a graduate fair said they did not think they would be held back from becoming senior partners or heads of chambers because of their sex.

Whether that is just a case of blind optimism, time will tell.

`It started just about work, then it became more personal'

Andrea Harrison's dream of a career as a solicitor was shattered by systematic bullying and sexual harassment.

In 1995, aged just 24, with a law degree and the Law Society finals behind her, she was delighted when she got a job as an articled clerk with a Manchester firm of solicitors. After a happy few weeks working for a woman solicitor in the matrimonial department, she was moved to another section of the firm, working with two senior male colleagues.

Now 27, she recalls with a shudder the bullying and sexual harassment that followed. "It started off just about work. One would shout at me to come and get him a file, when it was on the floor next to him, tell me to exchange contracts, then say he hadn't, get me into trouble, tell me my work was all wrong. Then it became more personal, about my appearance, and my relationship with my boyfriend. The other one sat through it all and said nothing.

"I went on holiday in July 1996 and thought maybe I would get over it. But when I went back, it was just as bad. It affected my health, so I was signed off sick for three months. I used to cry all the time, and wouldn't go out or speak to anyone. I am still paranoid that people are thinking bad thoughts about me."

At first, Andrea just wanted to leave and forget all about it, but then she decided that she could not let it happen to others. She took her case to an industrial tribunal, backed by the Equal Opportunities Commission, but in October last year the firm settled, paying her pounds 50,000 plus costs, and agreed to pay for some counselling for her, sign off her training, give her a reference and comply with EOC guidelines.

Andrea says: "I thought once the case was over, I would be all right. But it didn't take away the hurt. I am glad I brought it, because it would have been worse just to walk away.

"Even though I would still encourage other young women to go into the law, I myself don't feel I have the confidence yet to try again."

Comments