Law Society chief strikes new blow in battle of sexes

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Legal Affairs Correspondent

The solicitors' leader Martin Mears was embroiled in a new political correctness row last night when he told women in his profession to put their families ahead of their jobs.

His latest attack came in a letter to a group of young women lawyers who had sent him a survey showing that most senior jobs were still going to men.

Mr Mears told them it was not because of discrimination: "I do know a number of women solicitors with families and, in general, they don't wish to elbow and push their way forward in the way that their male colleagues feel compelled to do. In any event, in my view it is entirely right that women should put their families first."

His wife was a solicitor, he told them, and she had never experienced discrimination.

Mr Mears, 55, has already been involved in a series of attacks on political correctness since his campaign in the first contested Law Society presidential election for 40 years.

In his inaugural speech in July, he half-jokingly described his defeated feminist opponent Eileen Pembridge as "the most dangerous woman in Britain". Then, eight days ago, in his speech to the solicitors' annual conference, he said the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality had "outlived their usefulness".

At a private Law Society committee meeting this week he questioned the value of an annual equal opportunities award given by the society, and was later forced to pledge that he would always make it clear when he was expressing views which were his own, and not those of the Law Society

Mr Mears' correspondence with the Young Women Lawyers group started in July when they sent him a copy of their survey showing that only 25 per cent of new partners in solicitors' firms last year were women, despite the fact that nine years ago 44 per cent of new entrants to the profession were female. The average time it takes to become a partner is nine years.

Mr Mears replied: "My own wife is a personal injury solicitor in a large firm and she has worked in other firms.

"She has never experienced discrimination. In her last firm she was offered a full equity partnership but turned it down for domestic reasons. You may not like it, but I think it is a fact that many women solicitors do, in fact, put their families before their careers."

He said he expected the structure of law firms to adapt "in the natural course of things".

He added: "A firm will, in its own interests, offer part-time work to a good employee if that is the way to satisfy her."

The two leaders of the women lawyers, Clare McGlynn and Caroline Graham, replied to Mr Mears: "We continue to believe that anecdotal evidence is of secondary importance to researched data.

"Naturally, the experiences of individuals are important to the debate, but for each example of a woman solicitor who does not find her sex to be an impediment, there are many who hold the opposite view."