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Legal Profession: Females

Volume 502: debated on Wednesday 9 December 2009

To ask the Secretary of State for Justice what recent progress has been made on increasing the level of access of women to senior positions in the legal profession. (305002)

The legal professions have attracted significant criticism over the years for not representing the diverse society in which we live. However, this criticism has put diversity at the top of the agenda for the professions and their response has been encouraging.

In 1998 women accounted for 53.6 per cent. of traineeships registered with the Law Society. This increased steadily to 63.4 per cent. in 2007-08. Therefore the focus of the debate has in many ways shifted towards ensuring that diversity is maintained at all levels within the professions and that progression is not in any way linked to an individual's gender.

In 1998 women made up 17 per cent. of partners at law firms in England and Wales, compared to 24 per cent. in 2008. In 1998 less than 6.5 per cent. of all Queen's Counsellors were female; a decade later this figure was 10 per cent. In addition to this progression in law it is important to remember that according to the Association of Women's Solicitors (AWS), women are more successful when working in-house in the legal departments of industrial and commercial companies; for example, women head the legal teams at BT, Serco and the London Development Agency.

A variety of programmes has been initiated in order to improve further women's career progression in the legal professions. Some 11 per cent. of judges and recorders in 1999 were female; today this figure is 19.4 per cent. The Ministry of Justice is devoting considerable effort and resources to continue to improve diversity in the judiciary. In April 2009 the Lord Chancellor established an independent Advisory Panel on Judicial Diversity, to identify the barriers to progress on judicial diversity and make recommendations on how to make speedier and sustained progress to a more diverse judiciary at every level. The panel is expected to build upon the work that is already under way in this area, and to draw on lessons learned from current initiatives, including the Judicial Appointments Commission's Judicial Diversity Forum and the follow-up work from the Lord Chief Justice's conference on "A Judiciary for the 21st century".

In the private sector, the Association of Women's Solicitors, alongside major City law firms such as Lovells, have undertaken research which identifies that key barriers for women are that they do not have role models or are not self-promoting enough. Accordingly they are running ‘soft skill' programmes to encourage women to acknowledge their own success more, and for 20 years AWS have run a mentoring scheme so that new entries into the profession can be paired with more experienced female lawyers in order to pass on experience and contacts. AWS is also at the centre of encouraging law firms to adapt flexible working, so that mothers can still have a legal career alongside their family lives.

Some 60 per cent. of new solicitors are now female. It may take up to a decade for these new lawyers to become partners in big city firms, and we look forward to more diversity at all levels of the legal profession in the future thanks to the progress we are making now.