It’s 92 years since Ireland’s first woman solicitor was admitted and, in 2015, there is, for the first time, a female majority in the profession, writes Terri Kelly, Director of Representation and Member Services with the Law Society - here is some of what she says:
Quietly, and without much fanfare, a major landmark for the solicitors’ profession was passed at the end of 2014. For the first time, the number of female practising certificate holders exceeds their male counterparts.
To our knowledge, this is the first time a female majority has existed in any legal profession anywhere in the world.
The fact that there are now 4,623 female practising solicitors (compared with 4,609 male practising solicitors) is a remarkable achievement.
It is even more incredible when we consider that the first female solicitor in Ireland was not admitted to the roll of solicitors until 1923. Until that time, there had been no law expressly prohibiting women from working as lawyers – it was merely accepted custom that women were considered unfit for the work. In fact, the Solicitors Act 1843 provided that any ‘person’ with the required qualifications was entitled to train as a solicitor.
Mary Dorothea Heron was admitted as Ireland’s first woman solicitor in 1923. Heron worked at her uncle’s firm in Belfast until 1946, mainly doing probate work. This was not unusual. There was a perception in these early years that women solicitors were largely engaged as assistants in conveyancing or probate work. In fact, many of these women did not hold practising certificates, which was a convention permitted by the Law Society at the time.
The number of women solicitors was very small from the 1920s through to the 1950s. The number of women slowly started to climb in the 1960s. In 1960, no female solicitors were admitted to the role, and only 39 female solicitors were admitted over the entire decade. In contrast, 273 men were admitted during this period.
The women’s movement and the expansion of higher education through the 1970s and 1980s served to drive up the number of women entering the profession. From the mid 1990s, the number of women entering the profession started to exceed men, and it has been expected for some time that, eventually, women would become the majority.
Other professions not traditionally regarded as careers for women have seen a similar move towards equality, though not to the same extent as the solicitors’ profession.
Chartered Accountants Ireland reports that 39% of its members are female. The Medical Council of Ireland states that 41.3% of doctors are female.
Women currently dominate the State’s senior appointments in law and justice. Last year saw the appointment of the first female Garda Commissioner, Nóirín O’Sullivan, and the third female Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald. These appointments can be added to the first woman Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Susan Denham; the first woman Director of Public Prosecutions, Claire Loftus; the first woman Chief State Solicitor, Eileen Creedon; and the first woman Attorney General, Máire Whelan.
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Source: The Law Society Gazette Jan/Feb 2015
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