Where are all the feminist lawyers?

// 25 August 2011

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Lady Justice Statue The legal profession is not renowned for being women-friendly. This much I knew before starting a part-time Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) three years ago, but what I was not prepared for was just how many feminist issues there are that touch upon the law and, in my mind, demand a response from the legal sector.

Here are just a few, to whet your feminist appetite:

  1. Anti-choice activists in Parliament are proposing legislation that would require women to have independent counselling before making the decision to have an abortion. Find out more here.

  2. Although 58% of rape cases reach trial, the conviction rate in this country still stands at approximately 6.5%. Find out more about regional statistics here (pdf).
  3. Women in Northern Ireland still don’t have the same right to access abortion services as women in England, Wales and Scotland. Read the Abortion Act 1967, section 7.
  4. 40 years after the Equal Pay Act, women working full-time in the UK are still paid on average 15.5% less per hour than men (pdf).
  5. Domestic violence accounts for between 16% and 25% of all reported violent crime in the UK.

Perhaps it’s the ever-impending prospect of starting a career at the bar without knowing who to look to as a feminist leader in the field. Or the fact that I work full-time at a progressive international women’s rights organisation. Or perhaps it was the fact that I’d rather think about feminism than do my civil litigation coursework. It also could be that sheer annoyance I feel every time I go to court and see female barristers sporting eighteenth century male hairdos. For whatever reason, at a certain point I started asking myself: where are all the feminist lawyers? Where are they all hiding?

That question stewed away on the back burner of my mind for some time before I decided to do some research. Which organisations and individuals were promoting a feminist agenda within the legal profession? And, how could I get involved? What I was looking for where organisations that are ‘out’ as feminist and openly work towards a feminist agenda. So, I did what any 20-something would do – I Googled, Facebooked and tweeted.

What I found was brilliant on the whole. Feminist organisations (such as the F-Word), feminist blogs, feminist activists, feminist community groups, feminist book clubs, feminist tweeters, feminist online forums, feminist conference, and even an American feminist law professors group… but no coordinated, active group of feminist lawyers or law students.

If such an organisation does not already exist, then it should. So, I am testing the waters, calling out to see if any other barristers, solicitors or law students in the greater London area who want to convene with other legally-inclined feminist minds.

This is a guest post by @legalfeminists. Their website can be found at www.legalfeminist.org.

[The photograph is of the bronze statue of ‘Lady Justice’, above the Old Bailey court in London. She has a sword in one hand and scales in her left. It was adapted from a photo by Walwyn and is used under a Creative Commons Licence]

Comments From You

mike farrell // Posted 26 August 2011 at 11:06 am

its utterly ridiculous in this day and age that gender inequality exists in the UK. i have seen some particulary disturbing instances of bigotry and gender discrimination in the workplace in my time perpetuated by employers, not just on gender but on religious grounds and other issues, despite the law supposedly proscribing such behaviour.

there is absolutely no reason why women and men should not be treated equally in all areas and walks of life. all should have equal opportunities, all should be treated as equals.

i fully support your stance on this.

Bryony // Posted 26 August 2011 at 12:52 pm

Hello, I am both a barrister and a feminist one at that.

I agree that if you have those inclinations then it is useful to have various role models.

My most important one – at pupillage stage – was Baroness Helena Kennedy, although there are others (Gareth Peirce being one, Lady Justice Hale being another). But I suppose my focus was more on seeing women being successful in themselves in the justice field rather than those specifically addressing legal issues relevant to women.

Read this: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Eve-Was-Framed-British-Justice/dp/0099224410/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1314359228&sr=8-1

And this: http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/series/top-100-women-law

Boris // Posted 26 August 2011 at 1:50 pm

As a young man I face far more risk of being violently attacked or murdered than a women. Men also face longer prison sentences for murder than women and, I doubt a man convicted of murder would be able to get a job in a Travelodge.

As for this obsession for increasing rape convictions, it leads to this feeling that all men are guilty of rape and, it’s a case of there’s simply insufficient evidence to get a conviction.

Amanda // Posted 26 August 2011 at 3:48 pm

This is great. I shared it with my Women’s Studies professor. She originally went to law school and practiced law for a while. This is one of the things she talked about during her class.

Rachel // Posted 26 August 2011 at 7:43 pm

Probably already on your bookshelf…. but ‘Eve was Framed’ by Helena Kennedy is a must read for feminists in the law…. she’s my feminist legal icon.

Sarah Kate // Posted 27 August 2011 at 4:16 pm

Thanks for this! I’ve been working in a law firm for a year now and planning to follow the ILEX route to become a legal executive (working in family law), and have found it so alienating – the attitudes and values of the people in my workplace have really disheartened me, and left me very unsure about whether or not I want to pursue my career in this environment/profession. I feel very alone as a feminist and find myself biting my lip on a daily basis – to start with I did try challenging all the comments that I found offensive or questionable but it soon became apparent how alone I was and I found it too upsetting to enter into any discussion, so now I just try and keep my head down and get on with my job in the best way I can. Your post has made me feel a lot less alone and reassured me that we do need more feminist lawyers, which does motivate me to carry on. Sadly I’m not in the London area but would follow a feminist lawyers group with interest!

stanze // Posted 31 August 2011 at 9:16 am

Hello! I’ve just completed the GDL (not in London either, sorry) and am starting the LPC in a few days. I may be going against the grain a little bit here but my issue with the legal profession is not just a feminist one (although I will be very interested to see how it progresses over the next few decades, considering the large proportion of women who are entering the profession). Recently, out of curiosity (or perhaps procrastination), I was looking at the profiles of partners in a Magic Circle firm. It pretty much confirmed what everyone knows already. The vast majority were of course, white men. Not all of them had their educational background detailed, but most did and again, nearly all of them – men and women, of all racial backgrounds – were Oxbridge graduates. Those who weren’t tended to either come from abroad or went to a narrow range of other universities.

Where my own personal prejudice comes in is that I suspect most of these people were effectively ‘bred’ for this kind of career. In my tutor group on the GDL, the majority were either Oxbridge (or Durham) graduates and/or were public school educated. Almost none of them seemed remotely aware of their own privilege, which is unsurprising but still disappointing.

I have to admit that I haven’t looked into this in great depth, but I suspect that the shift to a more women-friendly profession will be less of a challenge (which is not to say that it won’t be a challenge at all!) than a shift to one which doesn’t value financial and class privilege as an indicator of future success. Then again, the demands placed on those heading towards the top of the career ladder are the demands that someone who has a large amount of personal freedom will find it much easier to meet.

Whichever way you look at it, the sad thing is that the legal profession is so competitive that anyone not willing to toe the line is likely to run into problems, which may explain the lack of feminists despite the increasing numbers of women. The people who recruit will never need to have their views challenged because they don’t have to employ the people who look like they may cause problems. Nothing new there though.

Kat Watson // Posted 1 September 2011 at 10:44 am

Thanks everyone for your comments, suggestions and interest! If you haven’t sent me your email address already, please do so if you want to be included on the email list.

Mike Farrel – thanks for your support!

Byrony – have already ordered Eve was Framed!

Amanda – thanks for sharing it with your professor.

Rachel – indeed, she’s mine too!

Sarah – you are not alone!

Stanze – Agreed that any shift in the profession that challenges the status quo will be difficult.

Let’s keep the momentum going! Kat

Katie B // Posted 2 September 2011 at 1:24 pm

Interesting post. I’m a junior legal aid solicitor. There are lots of lawyers in the legal aid sector who would count themselves as feminist I’m sure, and many who inspired me to become a lawyer too. I feel slightly embarrassed to name them here, but they include Gareth Peirce (already mentioned) and Sue Willman who does amazing work in public law and asylum support.

In 2005 a group of junior legal aid lawyers got together and formed Young Legal Aid Lawyers – Laura Janes, Kat Craig and Felicity Williams – and they’re about as feminist as you can get! The group is growing by the day and although we don’t have a particular feminist slant, we do campaign on social mobility and equality issues to try to make conditions better for juniors and those trying to get into the profession. The majority of us do this campaigning work outside our normal work hours, but the group’s great for providing support to each other so someone like Sarah wouldn’t feel like she was on her own (her post above was quite shocking to read. I’d hoped that kind of attitude was long gone).

At the moment we’re concentrating on the legal aid bill that’s going to have devastating consequences for lots of vulnerable people (including women!) if it’s passed. If you want to find out more about the campaign (and join us in fighting the cuts) you can go to http://www.younglegalaidlawyers.org or the Justice for All campaign (www.justice-for-all.org.uk).

If you manage to set something up with more of an obvious slant to feminism let me know and we can spread the word!

stanze // Posted 2 September 2011 at 3:50 pm

Following on from Katie B’s post – I’m a member of Young Legal Aid Lawyers in Yorkshire. The northern group currently meets in Sheffield but it’s attempting to grow, so if there’s anyone from around there who’s reading this, there is a group on Facebook that is pretty easy to search for if you’re interested. I assume the blog is OK with links to Facebook but I won’t link directly just in case.

Sira // Posted 6 September 2011 at 3:36 pm

There’s an organisation called Rights of Women, which provides online publications, training and a helpline for women who need free legal advice in relation to domestic and sexual abuse, housing and family law, asylum and immigration law and pretty much any issue that brings women into contact with the law.

It’s run by women lawyers and identifies as a feminist organisation (they also get involved in campaigning work).

Through my work I attended a training day run by them in the summer and the lawyer who ran the session was awesome – totally in control of her material, entertaining and witty. She made a session on how to get a non-molestation order with no recourse to public funds totally inspiring.

I also volunteer on a helpline for survivors of rape and sexual abuse and regularly refer callers to them for advice.

You should check out their website: http://www.row.org.uk

Mara // Posted 1 November 2011 at 3:47 am

I’m a feminist Law Student graduating this yr and I too am wondering where all the feminists are at. BUT I’m an American, so theres that.

Kat Watson // Posted 4 November 2011 at 9:44 pm

Someone recently said to me that when you Google ‘feminist lawyer UK’ this blog posting comes up! Indeed it does…! Apologies for not checking the comments board for so long. However, it’s really encouraging to read all the postings since I last posted on 1 September.

Despite the negative commentary on my blog posting (that threw me for quite a loop!), the vast majority of the responses were extremely positive. In late September 8 – 10 of us managed to have a meeting of ‘legally-inclined feminist minds’ that about 8 – 10. We’ve set up an online forum on the London Feminist Network site, and we’re resolved to ‘water’ the group and make it grow over the coming year. We’ve had interest from student and practicing lawyers from all walks of life. If you’re interested, please tweet me! We need to spread the word in any way we can.

A few weeks after our feminist lawyers meet-and-greet in the pub, I went to a film screening of the new Sarah Palin documentary. And, who but Helena Kennedy was sitting a few rows behind me! I took that as a good omen for our feminist group of lawyers.

Cheers again for all the support…

(PS – Mara, I’m also American)

helenf // Posted 8 March 2012 at 5:59 pm

Hi Kat, I am currently searching for a feminist barrister to help me with an Ancilliary Relief case against me, after the dissolution of my Civil Partnership where there was a pre-Civil Partnership Agreement. I wondered if you might be able to help point me in the right direction?

I will also get in touch with Rights of Women.

Many thanks,

Helen

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