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Celebrating International Women’s Day – the first female solicitors in the UK

With over 100,000 female solicitors currently practicing in the UK, it is hard to imagine a time when women were not allowed into the profession. And yet it was only 100 years ago in 1922 when the very first female solicitor was admitted to the roll in England.

Carrie Morrison was enrolled in the profession following the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 coming into force, which paved the way for women’s entry into the legal profession for the first time. This followed several previous legal attempts to allow women entry into the profession, most notably Bebb v Law Society, which challenged the Law Society to admit females to its preliminary exams, on the basis that women came under the definition of a ‘person’ in the Solicitors Act 1843.

The 1919 Act was momentous legislation which meant that Morrison, together with Mary Pickup, Mary Sykes and Maud Crofts, were able to complete their Law Society examinations and finally qualify as solicitors.

Morrison’s career as a solicitor was very much one of standing up for those unable to defend themselves. During the years following her qualification, she spent her time working as a Poor Man’s Lawyer, a service that was established in 1891 and was the inspiration for our current legal aid system. Morrison often represented prostitutes in court and was the solicitor for the Women and Children’s’ Protection Society.

Most notable was her work towards the Divorce Law Reform and Morrison was the first lady solicitor in living memory to represent a woman petitioner, under the Poor Person’s Rules. Together with her ex-husband, also a solicitor, she advocated to make the divorce process more reasonable and fairer for both parties, as the law required that the process should be adversarial, with one party ‘placing blame’ on the other. It is particularly poignant that we celebrate Morrison in the same year that the divorce law is finally leaving behind this archaic legislation and moving towards a more amicable process based on ‘no-fault’.

In 2020, the Law Society honoured Morrison by having a room, currently known as the Old Bookshop, renamed in her honour at its historic headquarters in Chancery Lane.

In Scotland, Madge Easton Anderson became the first female solicitor in the UK when she was admitted to the roll in 1920. Anderson also practiced as a Poor Man’s Lawyer within her community in Glasgow and in 1937, she qualified as a solicitor in England, making her the first woman to qualify in two jurisdictions in the UK.  She established the first all-female law firm in London with two other women, Edith Annie Berthan and Beatrice Honour Davy, proving her to be a true pioneer.

We owe a great deal to the likes of Carrie Morrison and Madge Anderson. They fought with sheer determination for women to have the right to work in law, a profession that was dominated by men at the time and is now, according to the Law Society, 51% female.

The coat of arms of the first female President of the UK Supreme Court, Baroness Hale, carries the motto ‘Omnia Feminae Aequissimae’, which means “women are equal to everything”. Carrie Morrison and Madge Anderson proved this to be true and as female professionals working within law, we are proud to continue to strive towards this.