New year, same determination: ensuring my presidency leaves a lasting legacy for women in law.
2019 marks a historical milestone for our profession as we prepare to celebrate the first 100 years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 allowed four women with first-class degrees to pass their law exams and become lawyers.
In a profession that existed for millennia, it only took women 98 years to become the majority of
practising solicitors in England and Wales (in 2017 women accounted for 50.2% of Practising
Certificate (PC) holders). This is undoubtedly a great achievement, and yet, of the 30,000 partners in private practice only 28% of partners are women and this is clearly an issue that needs to be tackled. I hope and believe that my women in leadership programme has a significant contribution to make.
The first thing the Law Society did to build the foundations of this programme was to undertake
what became the biggest ever survey on women in law, designed to identify the key barriers
hindering gender equality in our profession, as well as potential solutions.
Unsurprisingly, ‘unconscious bias’ was found to be the biggest obstacle women face in their careers. Of course, this is not unique to our profession and finds its root causes in die-hard societal pressures and gendered expectations of the roles men and women should have. What makes it very difficult to tackle unconscious bias is that we are all innately biased, bias is coded in our survival instinct. It takes therefore a conscious effort and a lot of training and self-reflection for us to be able to minimise the negative impact of our biases.
If we crack this, then we will be able to tackle of the other barriers women are still facing at work,
including lack of flexibility, resulting in often unsustainable work-life balance, and male-oriented
networks and routes to promotion. This will also have a positive impact on reducing the pay gap that still exists between men and women in our profession today.
Of course, neither I nor the Law Society could take on this challenge alone. In order to succeed in my intention of accelerating the pace of change for women in law, I needed to build a movement, to empower women and men to become activists and work together to achieve gender equality.
Over the last 12 months we have delivered over 200 roundtables providing women at all levels with an opportunity to discuss challenges in a safe space and commit to tangible actions. We also held roundtables with senior men who have power and influence to affect changes in their organisations. We encouraged them to take the Harvard University’s gender IQ test to better understand their own gender bias and to personally commit to making gender equality a priority in their workplace.
We developed toolkits to support these conversations and I would encourage everyone to use them to start a dialogue within their workplace, within but also outside the legal profession, as this is an issue that affects all of us.
Our profession is now at a critical point and we need to embrace change to remain relevant.
There is now ample evidence of the business case for diversity. We know that gender balanced
boards and leadership teams that represent a wide spectrum of backgrounds and life experiences are vital to innovation, productivity and the bottom line.
If embraced, this change will be transformational.
I intend to do everything in my power to ensure this change happens. That is why I have been
working with colleagues at the Law Society and with many partners and stakeholders to deliver an international symposium on 20 and 21 June 2019 to share everything we have done so far, including all the research and tools we have developed to support women in leadership in the law and achieve gender equality. It is no coincidence that the symposium is titled The power of gender equality to transform the business of law.
My hope is that this event will offer tangible tools and insights to help build momentum and
promote actions and activism. I encourage everyone, including students, to attend.
Whilst the topic of women in leadership in the law is fundamental to me, it is not the only thing that has kept me busy during my presidential year. Another one, equally vital to our profession, is the impact of technology and more specifically the capacity of disruptive legal technology to have a transformative impact on legal practice. As legal businesses we must embrace these new solutions to remain relevant or someone else is going to come along and eat our lunch.
One strand of the Society’s work in this space is to study the application of artificial intelligence
algorithms in the justice system, through a year-long investigation into the impact of technology. I have the honour of chairing the Public Policy Technology and Law Commission established last year. Other lead members are Sylvie Delacroix, professor in law and ethics at the University of Birmingham Law School, and Sofia Olhede, professor at the Department of Statistical Science, University College London.
The Commission’s formation reflects growing concerns about the advent of so-called ‘Schrödinger’s justice’, in which decisions are taken by self-learning systems impervious to examination or challenge. The role of the Commission is to compile evidence, both written and oral, which will all become publicly available.
The second element of the technology initiative is a partnership between the Society and banking giant Barclays to incubate the next generation of legal tech businesses. An ‘Eagle Lab’ has opened in Notting Hill Gate, West London, to bridge the gap between emerging innovations and law firms by housing start-up businesses and acting as a hub for collaboration. This is one of several technology incubators set up by the bank around the country and the first to focus on legal technologies.
There is no doubt transformational change is afoot, both in terms of makeup and functioning of the business of law. Women have a pivotal role to play in this, and men are key allies to help us achieve true equality of opportunity in the legal sector. So, I ask you to join me, to become part of our movement for gender equality and for innovation. Together we are shaping the future of our profession.
Christina Blacklaws, President of the Law Society of England and Wales