Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Are some lawyers (men) more equal than others (women)? The answer is 'no'

Question: how many female lawyers are at the top of the legal profession? You'd hope the answer would be: "A great many - in fact, they're present in the same numbers as men. Thanks to things like The Law Society's Diversity and Inclusion Charter, not to mention Britain's well-developed equality laws and the way in which society has developed, women are now just as likely to occupy the top roles in the legal profession as men."

Sadly, the truth is otherwise, as the estimable Baroness Hale pointed out recently. Speaking earlier this month at a conference to mark the beginning of the legal year, Baroness Hale - the deputy president of the Supreme Court and, as such, the country's most senior female judge - called for more women and ethnic minority lawyers to be appointed to make the judiciary more reflective of society as a whole.

A lack of diversity

Brenda Hale, Baroness Hale of Richmond
Brenda Hale, Baroness Hale of Richmond

Lady Hale became the first woman to be appointed as a law lord in 2004. She commands huge respect among the judiciary and beyond, but the very fact that it took until the 21st century for a woman to become a law lord cannot but give cause for concern. After all, women achieved partial suffrage in the UK in 1918, gaining full suffrage in 1928. It is remarkable the best part of a century passed before a woman penetrated the glass ceiling of the judiciary.

Since becoming a law lord, Lady Hale has seen the metamorphosis of the judicial functions of the House of Lords into the Supreme Court (which came into being in 2009) - and she has also noted the palpable absence of other women at this level. As she put it:

"While I am flattered and proud to have been the first woman appointed as a law lord in 2004 I do not want to be the last. I am disappointed that in the 10 years since I was appointed not one among the 13 subsequent appointments to this court has been a woman. Things are improving in the lower ranks of the judiciary, but regrettably not yet up here. I do not think I am alone in thinking that diversity of many kinds on the bench is important for a great many reasons."

For Lady Hale, there are two main reasons for the absence of women at the top, as reported by The Law Society Gazette - the division of the legal profession into barristers and solicitors, coupled with the fact that only top barristers have traditionally been seen to have the merit to be top judges. In effect, the system means that men of the same ethnicity and professional background are all too tempted to appoint their colleagues to senior roles.

Diversity - but from the glass ceiling down

The same can be said of the constitution of the majority of law firms. Take any magic circle firm, and ask whether there are as many female partners as there are men; the answer will be 'no'. Many such firms have adopted diversity policies, and yet seem to operate them from the glass ceiling down.

Another of Baroness Hale's observations sums up where we are going wrong. Asked about whether barristers or judges should wear wigs, she said: "I am not in favour of barristers or judges wearing wigs. My main objection is that they are men's wigs… I think diversity of appearance is just as important as diversity of background and experience."

She is, of course, quite right. Why on earth do we preserve the wearing of 'male' wigs, when they come with such loaded, patriarchal and sexist connotations? There are however, valid arguments about appropriate anonymity and gravity, which is a separate matter.

It is high time that the profession took a long, hard look at its commitment to diversity. Are we doing enough? Are we truly equal? Or, as in George Orwell's Animal Farm, are some lawyers (men) more equal than others (women)?

The answer is 'no'. Let's make sure it's heard loud and clear.

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