Sleeves are still up as women celebrate 100 years in law

It’s incredibly important to encourage and support other women in the legal profession, says Jodie Hill of Thrive Law

This year marks the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919, which paved the way for women to become lawyers for the first time.

However, it took another three years before Ivy Williams and Helena Normanton became the first women to be called to the bar and the first female barristers to practise in England.

With contemporary lenses, you could be forgiven for thinking the UK would have been at the forefront of such rights and freedoms.

But the appointment of Williams and Normanton in 1922 was more than 50 years after women were allowed to become lawyers in the US and several years behind many other countries too, including Uruguay, the Philippines and Romania.

Thankfully, a hundred years on from the passing of the act, a lot of progress has been made. But it would be a far cry from the truth to think the job was done. There’s still much rolling up of the sleeves needed to achieve true equality.

Ever the pioneer, solicitor Jodie Hill is one of those achieving just that.

“It’s empowering to see global movements like International Women’s Day and #MeToo campaigns gaining more momentum and influence,” says Hill, who founded Leeds-based law firm Thrive Law in early 2018.

“There are still so many old school law firms out there which are still holding on to incredibly outmoded attitudes towards their female colleagues.”

Jodie adds: “Flexible working and parental leave are just two areas of policy which are often missing altogether or are woefully out of step with modern day demands because of their basis in long held attitudes and unconscious biases.”

Of course, this is far from exclusive to the legal profession and outdated policies of this kind can stymie progression opportunities for men as well as women.

Almost two full decades into the 21st century, it’s the disproportionate impact on women that still makes issues such as these a source of frustration for those campaigning about inequality.

According to a 2017 annual report from the Law Society of England and Wales, for the first time, the number of women holding practising certificates in law marginally outnumbered men at 50.1%, and women also represented 48% of the solicitors working in private practice.

With women making up 61.6% of new admissions in 2016/17, there doesn’t seem to be anything holding women back at the start of their legal careers, yet there are still challenges to be addressed.

Examples include the sector’s ongoing gender pay gap, that women are still under represented in the judiciary and that only 16% of law firm owners and equity partners are women. All of these issues remain despite more women qualifying in law each year than men.

Until there’s better diversity, it’s hard for women and other underrepresented groups entering the profession to see a clear path forward.

The First 100 Years is a ground-breaking history project with several high-profile backers including the Law Society and Bar Council. With the support of charity, Spark21, they’re working to create a digital museum containing 100 videos that combine to tell the story of women in law.

The goal of the project is to ensure a strong and equal future for all women in the legal profession, which it aims to achieve by celebrating positive role models and becoming a platform for intelligent debate.

Clearly proud to be among many other women and men who are doing what they can to campaign for change, Hill has recently established a networking group called Thrive Women to mark the centenary year of the 1919 act and celebrate 2019’s International Women’s Day. An already sold-out Thrive Women event is taking place on 15 March.

Her aim is to connect and empower like-minded, self-motivated and ambitious women to achieve success by providing them with access to an ongoing mutually supportive network. Her events will take part in fun and vibrant environments, which make a change from the daunting offices and lecture type presentations.

At the end of January, she was among an impressive line-up of speakers at the Women In The Law: Wellbeing in the Workplace event, which she chaired. She’s also been a tireless advocate for changing the law to improve mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

“It’s just incredibly important to me that I encourage and support other women in the legal profession,” says Hill, who also works as an ambassador for Women in the Law and as a specialist guest blog writer for MMB Magazine for working parents.

“In December, I attended a talk by Baroness Hale of Richmond who’s always been my inspiration and role model for practising law,” she adds.

And it’s easy to see why: a judge, the current president of the Supreme Court of the UK and the only woman to have ever been appointed to the House of Lords in 2004 as a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, fellow Yorkshire born and Richmond School alumni Lady Hale has certainly blazed a trail for Hill to aspire to.

“In her talk, Lady Hale said she feels the price of equality for women, those from minority ethnic backgrounds and from ‘less privileged lives’ is eternal vigilance,” says Hill.

“She calls for more balanced and diverse representation in the highest courts and judiciary and I firmly believe that it falls to our generation to continue the legacy she’s building for us. Here at Thrive Law, we’ll certainly keep doing our best to play our part by creating a diverse team and lead by example in this important movement.”