Dana Denis-Smith, founder of The First 100 Years project charting the journey of women in the legal profession tells us about one of the project’s latest film launches and what to look out for from the project in 2019.

The First 100 Years recently launched its latest film, featuring Cherie Booth QC. She talks about how as a pupil she never saw a woman barrister, which made it a challenge for her to find her voice.

It is precisely these sentiments that the profession needs to hear. I launched the First 100 Years to give women lawyers a voice, but also to create a positive legacy for future generations. We need an understanding of the past to enable us to learn lessons for the future. It is a charitable initiative, reliant solely on the goodwill of fellow professionals and donations from individual lawyers, law firms and chambers.

This year is a pivotal year for the project as it sets out to mark the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which paved the way for women to become lawyers.

To kick off this crucial year, we hosted an evening with Cherie Booth QC kindly sponsored by KPMG, where we launched the film of her story in the profession. It gives a fascinating insight. Here are some excerpts:

Well when I first decided that I wanted to be a lawyer it was quite a strange decision for me to make because I didn’t know any lawyers personally, nobody in my family had ever been to a university, I certainly never came across lawyers in our ordinary everyday life. But I come from Liverpool, and my grandmother was a great fan of Rose Heilbron QC, and of course Rose was the first ever woman QC, she was also the first woman to defend someone on a murder charge when there was still the death penalty, and the first woman to plead at the Old Bailey; she did so many firsts.  And Rose was a girl from Liverpool, and Liverpool were tremendously proud of Rose Heilbron and my grandmother used to go and watch her when she was in the Liverpool Assizes, she used to come back and talk about her. 

Then in the late 60’s early 70’s there was actually a drama on TV called I think something like ‘Justice’, but it was based loosely on Rose Heilbron…And so I don’t know but subliminally it obviously had an effect on me and I thought well if one girl from Liverpool can make it as a lawyer why shouldn’t this girl from Liverpool make it as a lawyer.  Of course, it was only when I actually started to study law that I suddenly realised that the reason why Rose Heilbron was so famous was because she was so rare.

When asked about being in a minority when studying at LSE, she says:

I can remember getting the call [to the Bar in 1976] because I was the top student, I was invited to make the speech and sit with the benchers and Lord Denning being there saying to me, “Oh well really the Bar isn’t the place for…for women”, so it’s not exactly the most encouraging way to start. I don’t know, somehow or other I felt that I was going to be different.   I went on to do my pupillage and I can remember looking back that whole first year, although there were two other women in chambers who were tenants at that time, I never ever saw a woman barrister appear in court that whole time I did my pupillage, all the people I saw standing up and advocating were all men.  And for a woman, you know you’ve got to find, as an advocate you have to find your voice, and so you know it’s quite a challenge when you didn’t see many women advocates to know what a woman advocate’s voice should sound like.  But that didn’t mean that there weren’t other role-models, so I always remember as a pupil, we did a case and Derry Irvine was our pupil master and he did a case against Tom Bingham and the two of them locked horns over that. 

 Now Derry is a big man, a big presence, and I would always say that his cross-examination technique was a bit like a rhinoceros you know, he was out there.  And then I watched Tom Bingham cross-examine the same witnesses, he was like a snake, much more subtle, sinuous and I thought actually I’m probably better trying to be a snake rather than a rhinoceros.

On starting Matrix Chambers:

 I was a founder member but the truth was there were far more men than women still in those chambers – even today I think that’s still the case. Yet we don’t have an issue any more about attracting women to the law because nowadays no-one would say “oh women can’t be lawyers.”  When I was a student the Glanville Williams book ‘Learning the Law’, that was given to us on the first day at LSE, said that women can be lawyers but they’re better of being solicitors because women advocates are not successful because their voice doesn’t travel as far in court as men. 

 Now no-one would say that anymore but nevertheless we still find that women drop out more [of the profession]. When I became a Queen’s Council, Rose Heilbron my role-model was number 1, I was number 76 so from 1949 to 1995 that’s quite a long time to have had only 75 more women QC’s.

But times have certainly changed. Cherie recalls one funny episode in court when her female counterparts outnumbered the men:

I have been in cases where virtually all of the advocates were women.  I remember I was in a case in the Court of Appeal when there were three judges, two women and one man and when my male opponents stood up to address them he kept saying “my lord and my ladies” until eventually the male judge lent forward and said: “I think that from now on perhaps you could address us all as my lady”, it was so funny. 

She also talks about the profession’s diversity problem, saying that it is now much more difficult for people from working class backgrounds to come into the law because of the way the system is funded:

…so what we are seeing I think still is that it’s much more difficult now for working class or people from disadvantaged backgrounds to come into the law in the first place because of the way we fund our system it’s very difficult…and that’s something I feel very passionately about something I try and work on, because we do need to have diversity in the legal profession, it’s a problem I think we’re actually going backwards. I think there are fewer state educated people coming to the bar now than there were in the past and that’s partly to do with the lack of legal aid work that did open up an avenue which provided support for people who otherwise couldn’t have afforded a career at the bar.

You can watch the full film at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nz1crf8Db64&t=608s&mc_cid=1a2aea1275&mc_eid=8c04b45c82

We’ve also just launched an interview with Helena Kennedy QC, which you can view here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wdIo7HuqJY&list=UUErS8JmJjQ0yf8Ku4P4skfA&index=19 

If you or your chambers would like to sponsor a film and host a launch for it with your clients in chambers or even hear more about what we have planned throughout the year, please get in contact with me at: d.denis-smith@spark21.org

You can read more about the project by visiting our website at: https://first100years.org.uk/

Donations can be made via our website at: https://first100years.org.uk/support-us/digital-wall/

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