Women in the legal industry

Secretary of State The Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss speech at the Spark21 Conference.

The Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP

It’s great to be here today to celebrate 100 years of women in law.

Women like today’s award-winner Keily Blair – a solicitor, a passionate advocate for young female lawyers and the founder of the Fractio Vitri network whose aim is to break the glass ceiling.

My congratulations also go to the two runners-up, Claire Sng and Georgina Wolfe.

The drive and talent of women like you are fundamental to this world-leading profession that boosts the British economy by more than £25bn annually.


What drives the international reputation of your profession is the sheer intellect and talent of those who work within it.

And the profession is constantly innovating so law evolves - driven by the vision and convictions of brave individuals who have dared to challenge the status quo.

  • Women like Gwyneth Bebb, whose repeated attempts to qualify led to the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act almost 100 years ago.
  • Or Lady Hale, who played a major role in the introduction of the Family Law Act 1996, landmark legislation on how we prosecute domestic violence cases.
  • And Dame Linda Dobbs, our first black High Court judge and a tireless champion of diversity.

If English law is to continue to evolve, innovate and lead the world we need to make use of all our talents.

This is not diversity for diversity’s sake. It’s about talent for talent’s sake. I want to work with you to build a legal system which draws from all talents and represents the great vitality and diversity of modern Britain.

And that will take a change in approach. We cannot wait for change, we must work together to make change happen.

Flexible and results orientated

And to force the pace of change we must tackle both the practical barriers and a mind-set that can sometimes prevent talent from breaking through.

We need more firms like Obelisk Support, which was set up by former Linklaters lawyer Dana Denis-Smith to match the highly-qualified pool we have of largely female ex-City legal talent with clients looking for part-time and flexible legal advice.

Obelisk is successfully challenging the old-fashioned culture of ‘jacket-left-on-chair’ presenteeism. Dana’s approach of flexible outsourcing means that success is measured by results, not hours spent grafting in the office. A real boost for all working parents.

I want to see more women and ethnic minorities taking silk and I am working with the Bar Council to take action. Currently only 13% of our QCs are women and 5% are BME; both rates have been stagnant for 5 years.

I want to see more women and ethnic minorities in senior levels of law firms.

I’ve had positive meetings with the Magic Circle, the Silver Circle and the Law Society on how we can widen the talent pool to people from all walks of life.

But most of all I want to see more women and ethnic minorities in the judiciary.

This week’s events show the importance of the judiciary in our constitution and our free society. Our independent judiciary is vital.

From the Supreme Court down, we are unrivalled around the world in having judges who are independent, impartial and incorruptible.

I can think of no higher calling than joining the judiciary

Today I am announcing a series of measures to encourage experienced lawyers from all fields to heed that call.

The abilities needed to be a judge are legal knowledge, integrity, intellect and drive – not how many hours you have put in on the circuit or spent in the courtroom.

It shouldn’t matter if you have practised in a Barristers’ Chambers in Leeds or the Government Legal Service in London. Whether you’re a Recorder in Bristol or General Counsel for a company. What matters is talent.

And in particular I want to see more solicitors welcomed into the senior levels of the judiciary.

It is right that we make the most of all the talents at the Bar and in the Solicitors profession.

And I know from my discussions with Lord Kakkar, the new chairman of the Judicial Appointments Commission, that he feels the same.

We are changing the selection process to make sure the wider merits of all candidates are recognised from the outset – ensuring that talent and ability trump ‘box-ticking’.

We are going to bring forward four proposals:

1. A Top 100 Talent competition.

  • In the next Recorder competition, expected to launch in February 2017, we will appoint judges from the top 100 talent.
  • No longer will they be required to have experience in any particular type of law, be it crime, family or civil.
  • Nor does it matter where they live, as applicants will no longer be bound to a specific location. We will simply be looking for the best 100 applicants from across England and Wales.

2. Opening up the High Court.

  • We are also going to make it easier for our top talents to go straight into the High Court. The next recruitment campaign will for the first time open the door to a wider pool of ‘direct-entry candidates’ – individuals who while exceptionally talented have not had previous judicial experience. These may be academics, in-house counsel or perhaps Magic Circle solicitors who spend more time in boardrooms than courtrooms.

3. Quicker progress for Deputy High Court judges

  • I also want to do more for the Deputy High Court bench – highly-valued individuals from the legal sector who sit part- time in the High Court. They are a vital source of talent for the senior judiciary. And I want to make it easier for the best of them who wish to seek promotion to make quicker progress.
  • This is why I have agreed with the senior judiciary and Judicial Appointments Commission that a new fast-track process will let them apply for full High Court office as soon as they are ready.
  • The process of selection will be more straightforward. While merit and ability must always be paramount, experience as a Deputy High Court judge will carry far greater weight than at present.

4. Potential

  • I want also to talk about potential. I have already explained that we will always select our judges on the basis of merit. However, I feel - and I know the Lord Chief Justice and Lord Kakkar - agree, that the assessment of merit needs to include an assessment of potential.
  • I think that future recruitment campaigns should make clear to all candidates that their potential counts. You should not be put off just because your career so far hasn’t taken you into a courtroom because we will offer training and support where that is necessary.
  • What matters should be your potential to preside as a judge in court – to develop your ‘judgecraft’ as it is known.

So consider this a call to arms.

We already have the best judges in the world. The reputation of our judiciary is unrivalled. It is this that has helped establish this country as a global legal forum. It is crucial that we nurture the next generation of talent by making the judiciary even more open and diverse.

If you have the skills, the drive and the talent to reach the top of your profession we are here to help you.

We want the best and the brightest from every background.

You will be the legal pioneers for the 21st century – breaking down barriers and breaking new ground in an ever-evolving but always exceptional profession.

Published 10 November 2016