The First 100 Years Official Launch

As Prime Minister in the late 1940s Clement Attlee oversaw many of Britain’s most progressive reforms around workers rights, families and the Law. The Fair Wages Resolution, universal family allowances and Legal Aid all entered British society during Attlee’s time in Government. So it was perfectly fitting that his portrait should oversee the official launch of The First 100 Years at the House of Lords last Thursday, in the room that bears his name.

At 3.30pm last Thursday, 100 people stepped from a bright and modern London day into the calm tradition of the Attlee Room – where cucumber sandwiches and cream teas were served and friends, colleagues and new contacts created a true metropolitan buzz – to witness the launch of a new, pioneering project that is about to take a vitally important look at the history of women in the Law.

The First 100 Years – created by Dana Denis-Smith, the CEO of Obelisk Support, and supported by The Law Society and The Bar Council – will chart and celebrate the journey of women in the legal profession from 1919 to present day. This four year project has been timed to mark the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in 2019.

The launch attracted top names from across the legal profession, academia and the FTSE 100. Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Herbert Smith, Thomson Reuters, BT, M&S, Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, KPMG, Oxford University, The Law Society, The Bar Council, the Inner Temple and 39 Essex Street were all on the guest list, and clearly excited to be at the Palace of Westminster to see The First 100 Years make its first official public appearance.

Some guests who arrived early drifted naturally towards Victoria Tower Gardens, next to Black Rod’s entrance to the House of Lords, where the Emmeline Pankhurst statue stands and four women sat talking on a park bench. This impromptu gathering captured the spirit and the purpose of The First 100 Years. Sitting on that bench was Baroness Cohen, the Labour Peer and lawyer who graduated from Cambridge in 1962, Laura Pankhurst, the Suffragette’s great-great-granddaughter who is reading Law at Cambridge today, Madeleine Heggs, who started her own legal practice 60 years ago and Dana Denis-Smith, who worked as a solicitor at Linklaters before establishing Obelisk in 2012. Between them, these four women represent the past, present and future of female lawyers and women in the workplace. In the journey of The First Hundred Years, this gentle gathering in Victoria Tower Gardens will no doubt go down in history as one of the first great steps.

The first speaker was Lady Elizabeth Cruikshank, a former Chairwoman of the Association of Women Solicitors and author of “Women in the Law”. A natural storyteller, Lady Cruikshank set out the hurdles that female lawyers have faced over the last 100 years, despite the shortage of men in British society after the two world wars. Lady Cruickshank said the legal profession lost 3,000 solicitors during the First World War, but even after the devastation of 1918 the sector was still carefully managed so that it remained the domain of wealthy men.

“If you go back to 1919 when the Sex Disqualification Removal Act was introduced, solicitors earned around £200 a year when qualified. You have to reason that the purpose wasn’t just keeping out women but also working class men. The Law at this time was seriously elitist.”

The only women working in the Law in the post war years were the daughters of men who owned family firms. Some fathers would insist their daughters worked in the firm rather than go off to university, which was seen as an unnecessary expense. But despite these initial introductions to the legal profession, with some possible openings, women were still terribly under-represented in the Law as modern Britain emerged from the aftermath of the wars.

Lady Cruickshank said: “By 1962 fewer than 500 women had qualified as solicitors. Those who did qualify went on to be sole practitioners or joined the family firm. It was very difficult to go into a practice as a woman if you were not related or married to a male lawyer.”

“But from the 1960s onwards, more women have entered the legal sector, and from this platform, have gone on to work in other areas of the Law becoming Mayors, JPs and representatives of their local Law Society. In the City, it’s only in the last 30 years that progress has been made, leading to women being given promotions.”

Lady Cruickshank thanked Dana Denis-Smith for launching The First 100 Years project, which will highlight these hurdles from the past in detail and help create an increasingly positive future for female lawyers across the UK; “a strong and equal future for all women in the profession” as the project website says.

Madeleine Heggs, the first woman in Britain to be appointed as a commissioner, asked if anyone in the room could beat her 60 years in the legal profession. It was a rhetorical question, met with smiles and warm applause.

Whereas Lady Cruickshank had talked about the legal profession in general, Madeleine Heggs spoke about her own personal and remarkable experiences of being both a female lawyer and a mother from the mid-1950s onwards.

Her career began in 1949, when she joined a City firm as an articled clerk and began her studies via the Law Society’s School of Law and London University. After spending some time in America, Madeleine Heggs came back to London in 1954, where she finally qualified as a solicitor in 1955 and secured her first job as a conveyancing solicitor.

Looking back on these times, Madeline Heggs told the crowd in the Attlee Rooms that it was widely expected that women would leave their legal career behind once they married or started a family. But this remarkable woman, who is defined by her rejection of the norm and her commitment to social justice, did not follow this convention. When Madeleine Heggs became pregnant in 1957, she kept on working, setting up her own practice at home and combining this with family life.

“It was half practice, half babies, and it was jolly hard work. In those days you didn’t have nannies. Thank goodness we have dishwashers these days. Life was very different in 1955. If you worked, it was seen as a reflection on your husband – that he was not earning enough. It was looked down on. And if you were pregnant and you told your employer I’m having a baby, they’d just say ‘bye bye – come back and see us when the baby is born.”

Like many female lawyers, Madeleine Heggs eventually moved from private practice to a wider legal role within society. In 1976, she was appointed Chairman of the National Insurance Local Tribunal. In 1978 she was awarded the Presidency of the Appeal Tribunal. In 1981 she became Social Security and Child Support Commissioner and in 1995 she was appointed deputy regional chairman of the Mental Health Review Tribunals.

The final speaker was Dana Denis-Smith herself, who echoed Madeleine Heggs’ story from 1957 of work being ‘half practice, half babies’. Showing how history is very much alive today, Dana said: “We have very similar stories, but years apart. Stories are at the heart of The First 100 Years project, which we first started working on one year ago, after I saw a photograph that was taken to celebrate the centenary of one of the top 10 law firms. There were 60 men in the photo, and one woman.”

That woman was in the crowd at the Attlee Room last Thursday.

Dana said: “We have achieved so much in that first year. We have a great following on social media. We have got a number of supporters and some great fans. The next stage is building a digital museum, creating content, making videos and sharing information. And for 2019 we will be campaigning to erect a monument to skilled women in the office, so people everywhere can see us.”

The launch was followed by a private tour of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, with tales from within these hallowed, legal walls of Margaret Thatcher, William and Mary and the Suffragettes.

As the tour drew to a close, the party was sitting in the No Lobby in the House of Commons, just as Big Ben chimed six. As the sound of the bell rang through the chamber, it felt as if you could reach out and touch a hundred years of history, and that projects like The First Hundred Years are ringing in a new, positive and progressive future for women in the workplace everywhere.