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Law: The future is female

The law is no longer a male-only preserve, but it will take time to change its culture.
Solicitors have recently turned to spin doctors to try to get rid of the public perception that they are all middle-aged, male money- grubbers. But that image may already be about to undergo a radical change.

At the same time as revealing that it had retained a public relations adviser to improve the image of solicitors, the Law Society of England & Wales has also published its latest statistics on trends in the profession which show that the majority of solicitors under 30 are women.

And it is not just at the lower end of the profession that women are making their mark. If there is no challenge to their present positions, next year there will be women presidents at the head of the major professional organisations: Kamlesh Bahl at the Law Society, which deals with more than 95,000 solicitors in England and Wales; Diana Kempe, QC, will be president at the International Bar Association; and Martha Barnett at the American Bar Association. The Bar Council had its first woman as chairman in 1998 - Heather Hallett QC.

Some women have been bemused by the coverage of firsts in the legal profession. Diana Parker, who became the senior partner of Withers this month - and the first and youngest woman senior partner in a City law firm - sees the publicity surrounding her election as flattering, if misplaced. But she warned: "Apres moi le deluge."

Being first is only the beginning. An article in this month's Legal Business picks out "Forty wonder women in private practice", detailing the experiences of 40 leading women solicitors who are "spectacular performers with real client-pulling power".

Many of those women have encountered unenlightened attitudes. Frances Hughes, corporate partner at the City law firm Slaughter & May, says: "I was told years ago by one of my clients that he would fire me if I ever got married." She did get married, and the client continued to give her work, although he stipulated that there must be no children. Hughes now has a child and still works for the same client. Another partner at the same firm, a leading EU and competition lawyer, Laura Carstensen, became a partner in 1994 when she was a single parent and pregnant with her fourth child.

Not all of them want to be superwoman, but many are trying to improve matters for those coming up the ladder after them. Diana Good, a leading commercial litigation partner at Linklaters, is the first woman to be elected on to the firm's management committee.

Good set up the firm's flexible working policy for partners; Linklaters is the only firm to have such a formal policy. She says that although such schemes are not a panacea, they are a good start - "any good business should want to retain its best people and accommodate different working practices, and that applies to both men and women."

Making an impact is not restricted to the legal sphere. Judith Mayhew, an employment lawyer at City law firm Wilde Sapte and chairman of the policy and resources committee at the Corporation of the City of London, is tipped to be a likely candidate for Mayor of London. She is also director of education and training at the firm. She agrees that women are less likely to have an impact at the junior level, "but if, in five to 10 years' time, they are not becoming partners in line with the 50-50 intake, then that will obviously be an issue that will have to be looked at sooner rather than later."

Women make up 25 per cent of the Bar - where, as recently as 10 years ago, there were still sets with no women members - and 7 per cent of the silks. The barrister Josephine Hayes, former chair of the Association of Women Barristers, says that "the future of the legal profession at the lower levels is that it will go on being male unless there are radical changes in the culture and attitudes about what type of legal system we want and the qualities needed for that legal system."

Despite the latest statistics, Hayes considers that the culture can be changed only if more women solicitors get partnerships. The Bar is, she says, more problematic because chambers are more insular. Further up the ladder, a judicial appointments commission would help change the view that judges are appointed on the basis of whom they know - ie other men.

At that highest level, a recent survey by the International Bar Association showed that women are under-represented in the judiciary in all jurisdictions - fewer than 25 per cent of the world's judges are women. England and Wales lag behind the rest of Europe, with women making up less than 10 per cent of the judiciary - Hungary and the Czech Republic have the highest numbers of women in the judiciary, with 69 per cent and 63 per cent respectively. In England, there is only one woman in the Court of Appeal, Lady Butler- Sloss. There are seven women in the High Court, compared with 97 men.

With more women entering the profession, the statistical likelihood is that there will be more women partners, silks and judges. Anne Rafferty QC says that "the legal profession should be merit-based and gender-irrelevant, and if it isn't, it should be".

Diana Good says: "It will not be exclusively female, but it will be more female than it is at present - and it may be more fun if it is."