Listen to this article
It began with a footnote. Dana Denis-Smith, founder of UK legal services firm Obelisk Support, was browsing through a lawyers’ trade magazine in 2013 and noticed a two-page profile of a male lawyer who had turned 100 years old.
At the bottom of the article were photographs of other centenarian lawyers, including a small picture of one woman. With little information attached, it was a striking image, says Ms Denis-Smith. “I became quite haunted by it.”
The photograph was from 1982 and Ms Denis-Smith realised she had never stopped to wonder when women first entered the legal profession. She started researching when the first women went into the law and how.
“Suddenly it made sense to me why we still talk about the lack of progress and diversity,” she says. “The history of women in the profession was just not a part of anything.”
December next year marks the centenary in the UK of the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, which allowed women to enter the professions. Ms Denis-Smith started to pore over documents, archives and newspaper clippings to learn what had happened since. She found that women had been largely written out of the historical record.
Centenary of the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act
Stories are at the core of her work. Before she attended law school, she trained as a journalist. Following a stint at London law firm Linklaters, she left to start her own venture. “I was too unruly for City life,” she says.
Obelisk Support enables lawyers to work on a contract basis with clients that might not need full-time counsel. Her aim is to create more flexibility for lawyers, too many of whom — usually women — would otherwise have to choose between a career and family.
Her research through the archives, meanwhile, led to the First 100 Years project. Supported by Spark21, a charity founded to support women in the professions, the project has created a multimedia catalogue of historical biographies charting the “first women” of the legal profession. These include such figures as Baroness Hale of Richmond, appointed last year as the first female president of the Supreme Court.
Ms Denis-Smith approached the project as if detailing a legal case. “I thought if I could understand the chronology I could build out the characters,” she says. It proved tricky and only by extensive searching was it possible to come up with more than a few oft-repeated names of first women in specific roles.
Other female leaders of the profession that the project uncovered, however, include the first to become a barrister, the first to petition to keep her maiden name, the first to be accepted on to a law course at university and the first to become a judge.
One of Ms Denis-Smith’s favourite figures is Dame Rose Heilbron, who, aged 91, died in 2005. She was the first woman to receive a first-class degree from Liverpool university, the first to win a scholarship to Gray’s Inn, one of London’s four inns of court, the first to lead in a murder case and the first female judge to sit at the Old Bailey.
Dame Rose also managed to balance a good deal of media attention with professional credibility. This, notes Ms Denis-Smith, is similar to the experience of Amal Clooney, one of today’s leading human rights lawyers.
As the First 100 Years project grew, it gained corporate sponsors. Although pegged to the UK centenary, it also now includes Australia and plans to launch this year in Canada, France, Ireland and the US.
Harriet Acland, who worked as a co-ordinator on the project, says it sets itself the task of looking at “what happened before as a way to talk about what’s happening now.
“You have to know how recently women were having to fight for the right to even practise in the law,” Ms Acland adds.
Ms Denis-Smith expects the project to have curated 100 videos and 500 stories by the December 2019 centenary. It is also launching a podcast series.
She points out that the preservation of the stories of the “first women” since the 1919 act is not simply about women entering the law.
“We are presenting a case study of something that was much broader,” she says.
She cites the example of a woman accountant, who was 72 by the time she was accepted into her profession. “She had been trying for over 30 years — 30 years.
“To be equal”, she says, “women were prepared to wait decades.”