Women Who Will: Breaking through biases and barriers

How female legal leaders can make a difference

Obelisk Support recently held an event for our “Women Who Will – Female Leaders in Law” network. This brought together the classes of 2020 and 2021 of our annual Women Who Will report, which celebrates pioneering women in the law, produced in partnership with the Next 100 Years project.

We were honoured to have I. Stephanie Boyce, the Immediate Past President of the Law Society of England and Wales, as our keynote speaker, who shared reflections on her career journey and explored how crucial it is for those in leadership roles to break down barriers, challenge outdated stereotypes, and hold open the door for others to follow.

In this post, we share highlights from Stephanie’s opening address, as well as key pieces of advice that were shared by our insightful group of female legal leaders.

History in the making

In March 2021, I. Stephanie Boyce made history as the 177th person, sixth female, first Black office holder, and first person of colour to become President of the Law Society of England and Wales.

“I stand as a living testament to the diversity, dynamism, and growing social opportunity in the legal profession.”

I. Stephanie Boyce

Growing up, it was always Stephanie’s dream to enter the legal profession and make a difference. During her childhood in the US, in particular, she had seen so many injustices, and people struggling to access their rights due to their socioeconomic position or ethnic background.

Despite facing many barriers during her early career, including difficulties securing a training contract, being made redundant twice while in private practice, and being told her ambitions were “not realistic”, she persevered. With much encouragement from her father and others who believed in her vision, Stephanie completed the Legal Practice Course at the College of Law, Guildford in 2000 after graduating with an LLB (Hons) in Politics from London Guildhall University in 1996, and was admitted as a solicitor in 2002. She went on to complete a master’s in Public Law and Global Governance at Kings College, London in 2010, and eventually landed a role in the City as a Senior Investigator for the General Counsel of the Bar.

From dream to reality

Driven by her desire to represent the profession she had fought so hard to become a part of, she threw herself into the workings of the Law Society, joining the Council as a representative of the Women Lawyers Division in 2013. She then set her sights on the presidency, but was not initially successful. Drawing on the experiences she had gained throughout her career, she resolved to keep trying; and keep trying she did! On no less than her fourth attempt, Stephanie was elected to become the Deputy Vice President, and went on to serve as President from March 2021 to October 2022.

During her 19-month tenure as the Law Society’s longest-serving President, Stephanie led the Society through challenging times: the tail-end of Brexit, a pandemic, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the war in Ukraine, the death of Her Majesty the Queen, and the biggest shakeup to the way solicitors train and qualify in the last 30 years, to name but a few.

Her strong leadership was crucial to the Society’s stability and successes, securing a number of concessions from government and other stakeholders on the judicial review reform, Bill of Rights Bill, Solicitors’ Judiciary Fund, and more.

“I made it one of my priorities during my presidency to do all I could to remove barriers for others. From day one, I set myself to continue the mantra that had got me here as President: ‘PUSH, Persevere Until Something Happens’”

I. Stephanie Boyce

The continued push for greater diversity and inclusion

I. Stephanie Boyce’s journey and success serves as an inspiration to us all, reminding us how important it is to persevere and push for what we believe in. While we certainly have made progress towards greater social, political, and economic equality for women in our society and profession, we still face many structural barriers, both visible and invisible. Women still lag behind men in pay, education, political representation, and their ability to access justice, among many other areas.

“100 years later, women are still fighting for the right to be seen and heard globally. If you happen to be a woman, LGBTQ+, from an ethnic minority background, disabled, older or poor, you may still find yourself exiled on a lonely island of discrimination.”

I. Stephanie Boyce

The foundation for change was laid a century ago. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 allowed women to enter the legal profession and the first women was submitted as a solicitor in England in 1922. One hundred years later, for the first time in our history, annual statistics from the Law Society reveal that women outnumber men practising as solicitors in England and Wales, making up 53% of the practising solicitors in the profession, and 63% on entry. Despite this progress, however, the advancement to senior roles on the junior end of the profession is slow, coupled with serious attrition later on. In 2022, women make up only 31% of partners in private practice, and there is only one female in the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land.

Leading positive change

We need to continue actively pushing for a truly diverse, equal and inclusive profession – and an industry that upholds the rule of law and reflects the diverse communities it serves.

Here are five reflections from our “Women Who Will – Female Leaders in the Law” network on how we can make a difference:

#1 We need more visible female role models

Female leaders in law need to step up as visible and accessible role models, by reaching out to younger colleagues, keeping the lines of communication open, and actively thinking of ways they can support the next generation. If the women at the top, and those heading there, don’t tackle and dismantle the prejudices and biases that hold women back, then who else will?

#2 There’s more to being a role model than success

While we all admire certain individuals for their career success, role models come in many shapes and forms. We also need mentors who show us what can be achieved in terms of diversity and inclusion, doing away with labels, breaking through barriers, and changing perceptions. It’s important to celebrate these stories, too – from the past and present – as reminders of what can be achieved.

#3 The future generation is an inspiration

In many ways, the future generation of lawyers are more in touch with, and driven by, their values. Younger lawyers are often more willing to initiate challenging conversations, and stand up for what they believe in. With that in mind, leaders must not only open doors for the next generation to succeed, but also open the floor for younger lawyers to share their views. They have much to teach us!

#4 A support system is crucial

It can be lonely at the top. As a female leader, current or up-and-coming, it’s important to have a tribe, a support system, in place to act as a sounding board and provide guidance. Investing in relationships and in building a network is always worthwhile.

#5 It’s time to move past perfectionism

In a profession that pushes for excellence, it’s vital to keep reminding ourselves that no-one is perfect. Obstacles, self-doubt, prejudices, and other issues will sometimes stand in the way. When it doesn’t go as planned the first, second, third, or even fourth time round (as Stephanie experienced), it’s important to keep focused on our intentions, and to relentlessly pursue the causes we joined the profession to champion.


Final considerations

In closing, I will leave you with these powerful words from I. Stephanie Boyce:

“I made it my mission to leave the profession more diverse and inclusive than the one I entered. This is a mission we must all share. There is plenty for us all to do to continue building a modern, diverse, strong, and inclusive profession for the future – where talent alone is the sole determinant of how far you can go and how successful you can be.

We must work together to dismantle attitudes that do not allow us to progress. We must work together to widen access to justice, make real the promise of democracy, and improve women’s rights. We must lift our voices in sisterhood and solidarity, and never be satisfied until there is true equality.”

I. Stephanie Boyce

Women Who Will 2022

Now out – and in its 3rd year – our Women Who Will report published in partnership with the Next 100 Years project celebrates another generation of leaders in the “Class of 2022”: an inspiring and talented group of women who building on the legacy of many pioneering women before them and forging a better legal profession for us all. You can read the report here.

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