It is one year shy of a century since Carrie Morrison became Britain’s first female solicitor in 1922, taking advantage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act that had been passed by Parliament three years earlier.
Leading Liverpool city region lawyer, Alison Lobb, is a big admirer of Morrison whom she believes is a pioneer who paved the way for women such as herself to forge successful careers in the law.
Alison, who since 2014 has been managing partner of one of Merseyside’s best known law firms, Morecrofts Solicitors, believes there has been huge progress since then but also says there is still some way to go, particularly when it comes to female representation in the upper echelons of the profession.
As recently as 1995, Ruth Harris made history upon joining City law firm Ashurst when she became one of the the first female lawyers in the UK who was allowed to wear trousers – an illustration of how absurd mindsets still persist.
According to the Law Society, since 1990 more than 60% of new entrants into Britain’s £28bn legal profession have been female. There are now more women than men practising as solicitors.
However, as Alison points out, there are still too few women in senior positions, particularly at many of the bigger corporate firms. Research carried out by the FT at the beginning of 2020 found only a a fifth of senior lawyers, or partners, were female and just under half of associates.
“There are still relatively few women rising to senior positions, particularly in the bigger firms,” said Alison. “That is maybe less true in Liverpool but it is certainly the case in national firms. Many careers seem to reach a plateau, and in some cases that’s a choice made by individuals and of course that is ok.
“Organisations such as the Law Society are committed to addressing the disparity but I still think there are barriers created by unconscious bias. There are a lot of people talking about the issue but it needs to get beyond just talk. We need to see some actual movement. I think bigger firms can be less flexible in their structure and that makes change more difficult.”
That certainly isn’t true of Morecrofts. The full-service practice, which is based in Liverpool city centre and operates from a number of offices across Merseyside, employs a total of 108 people, including 11 partners. Of the overall headcount, 85% are women and seven of the 11 partners are also female.
Alison added: “We don’t have any specific policies or processes to encourage more women into the firm or to progress while they are here. I think we moved beyond that some time ago, well before I became managing partner. We just instinctively look at everyone as a person – we don’t see women as a different species.”
Alison joined Morecrofts as a solicitor in 1999 and, even when she became managing partner, she said she didn’t have a great awareness of her gender being a particular issue, until she attended a Liverpool Law Society dinner for managing partners in 2015.
She explained: “I really sat back and realised that I was actually quite a rarity.
There was only one other female managing partner in that room back in 2015. That has increased, but we are still markedly in the minority.
“You sometimes see it in the mindsets of clients. If you deal with a client firm which has a male-dominated leadership team they are more likely to have an expectation of dealing with a man. One of our female solicitors went out to meet a new client for the first time and she took along one of our trainees, who happened to be male.
“Subsequent correspondence and calls from the client were directed by the client to the trainee, not to the female solicitor, despite instruction to the contrary. This is the problem with tackling unconscious bias. You can’t just flick a switch and things change. You have to work to change mindsets over a period of time.”
Alison believes one of the barriers to female progression in professions such as the law is the reality that women still make up the majority of carers in society. They are often trying to juggle the demands of their families and their careers, and firms with inflexible policies don’t make that any easier.
“I spoke at an event just before lockdown last year,” she said. “Afterwards I spoke to a woman who was joining a law firm. She had asked if she could work from home one day a week but they had said no. Firms who do this are doing themselves no favours. They risk losing excellent people through their own inflexibility.