31 Mar 2015

The First 100 Years: the journey of women in the legal profession

There are more tributes to dogs, cats and sheep in the City of London than women, says Dana Denis-Smith who is on a mission to celebrate the history and achievements of women in law.

Philip Bird LRPS CPAGB Philip Bird LRPS CPAGB

The First 100 Years project launched earlier this month at the House of Lords in front of nearly 100 supporters from across the legal profession. The official launch marked the first year since I initiated this five-year project with the aim of creating the UK’s first digital museum dedicated to the history of women in law. The museum will include an online library of 100 original videos and hundreds of photographs, stories and artefacts about women who have shaped the legal profession since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 paved the way for women to become lawyers to present day. 

Celebration of women in law

As support from all corners of the profession has grown over the last year, The First 100 Years has blossomed into an absolute celebration of women’s role in the profession, with an extensive programme of activities and events planned in the run-up to the centenary of the Act in 2019, which we plan to mark by erecting the first monument to the skilled working woman in the City of London. After finding out that there are more tributes to dogs, cats and sheep in the City then there are women, we have become determined that a monument must be put in place to celebrate the many skilled working women who have paved the way for their successors in the professions.

Big names 

The official launch attracted big names from across the legal profession, academia and the FTSE 100. Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Herbert Smith, Thomson Reuters, BT, Marks & Spencer, 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, as was Laura Pankhurst (great-great granddaughter of Emmeline herself) who is currently reading law at Cambridge. 

We were kindly hosted by Baroness Janet Cohen, who was also the focus of the project’s very first video. Guests heard from 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, she explained: 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.” 

Against convention

She was followed by Madeleine Heggs, who reflected own personal and remarkable experiences of being both a female lawyer and a mother for the past 60 years. 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.

Sharing information 

It is stories like Madeline’s of women’s life in law – both past and present – that we want to hear and share to show how little and how much has changed in our journey in the profession. With the support of The Law Society, the Bar Council, CiLex, among others, the project is looking to hear from all members of the profession about women that inspired their career, as well as building a comprehensive timeline of women’s rise in the profession by discovering law firm heritage, including any early pioneers or firsts for women. You can nominate yourself or someone you know. The project is also searching for biographies, photographs and stories of inspirational women across the last 95 years. Follow First 100 Years on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, email your stories and comments to [email protected], or visit the website for more information. 

Dana Denis-Smith, is founder of The First 100 Years and CEO of Obelisk Support. 

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