Winning the long fight

Carrie MorrisonCarrie Morrison

Julia McFall of local solicitors Wiseman Lee explains how the Sex (Disqualification) Removal Act of 1919 was the start of a slow process for gender equality in the legal profession.

In 1922 Carrie Morrison became the first woman solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales. It had been a long fight. In the famous case of Bebb vs The Law Society (1913), Gwyneth Bebb and three other women had sought a ruling that they were 'persons' within the meaning of the Solicitors Act of 1843 and therefore entitled to be admitted to the roll of solicitors. The court refused to rule on that point saying it was a matter for Parliament, and the following year the Court of Appeal agreed, preferring to rely on a 14th-century authority – Andrew Horne's The Mirror of Justices – which stated: "all who are not prohibited by law may be attorneys but the law will not suffer women to be attorneys nor infants nor serfs".

It was not until the end of the war and the passing of the Sex (Disqualification) Removal Act in 1919 that the Law Society duly registered the articles of 12 young women, of whom Miss Morrison was the first to qualify as a solicitor of the Supreme Court.

Despite this victory, progress was slow. By 1967, 45 years after Carrie Morrison qualified, only 2.7% of all solicitors were women. By 1987 the figure had risen to 16%, a figure which then doubled in the next decade. According to the Solicitors Regulation Authority data from 2015, "overall, women make up 47% of all lawyers in law firms, which is the same as the census data for economically active people".

In 2017 a Rubicon has clearly been crossed, but there is still work to be done. According to a recent article in The Guardian, "despite the fact that women account for 61% of law graduates, only 28% of private practice partners are female. The numbers are similarly troubling at judicial level. England and Wales have among the lowest proportion of female judges in Europe, and a 2010 Law Society review found that the lack of flexible work opportunities was a significant obstacle to women progressing up the career ladder. The gender pay gap in law is 30%, compared with a UK-wide average of 19%". On a positive note, of 11 partners at Wiseman Lee, five are women.

To celebrate the centenary of the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919, the First 100 Years project ( was created by Dana Denis-Smith, CEO of Obelisk Support. The First 100 Years is a groundbreaking history project, supported by the Law Society and the Bar Council, charting the journey of women in law since 1919. The project is powered by Spark21 (, a charity founded to celebrate, inform and inspire future generations of women in the profession. Launching the project, Dana said: "People don't know their history – who the first woman solicitor was, for instance. There is no archive like the First 100 Years to help us place ourselves in history."

Wiseman Lee is located at 9–13 Cambridge Park, Wanstead – call 020 8215 1000

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