WOMEN have come a long way in the 100 years since University of Glasgow graduate Madge Easton Ellis became the first female admitted to practise as a professional lawyer in the UK.

Yet despite women now making up around 70 per cent of law school and law firm intakes, less than a third of advocates and just 23% of silks are women while across the board law firm partnerships are only 32% female. It is something that community safety and legal affairs minister Ash Denham wants to see change – and fast.

Having earlier this year thrown down the gauntlet to the profession by urging it to stamp out harassment and foster diversity, Ms Denham last week called on all legal practitioners to change the way they act in order to make this happen.

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“I want to call on everyone in the legal profession, the justice sector and beyond to act differently because this is not just about what we do but how we do it,” she told a Faculty of Advocates event held to mark the centenary of the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act.

“I believe every one of us can make a difference. No one has the right answer – but we will find solutions faster together.

“As we celebrate 100 years of women in law this year, I want to reinforce the importance of accelerating the pace of change.

“I realise that some changes cannot be achieved overnight and will take more time to be implemented, but there are other changes that can be made in a much shorter timescale.

“We need to be ambitious while recognising that that structural change requires time to plan and prepare.”

Having already outlined her determination to see a 50-50 gender balance in senior roles by 2028, Ms Denham said that to get there the onus is now on all employers in the legal profession to introduce family-friendly working practices by 2023.

As part of that, she said she expects all law firms to include the Family Friendly Working Scotland Partnership’s strapline “happy to talk flexible working” in job adverts, something she believes will be of benefit to both male and female staff.

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“Offering family-friendly, flexible working practices is a win-win for employers and employees,” she said. “Family-friendly policies are not just lip service; they are the driving force for successful resilient businesses with happy and motivated employees who want to work for the organisation.”

Though the aim is for all partnerships to have a 50-50 gender split by 2028, Ms Denham said she expects businesses to get there in increments, with female representation in the sector overall expected to rise by two percentage points each year between now and then. And, while such targets can lead to questions being asked about the ability of the women being appointed, Ms Denham said the profession must ask whether the people already holding those positions are those best suited to the job.

“The question we should ask ourselves is that when women are under-represented on boards or partnerships, is the board or partnership of that organisation entirely there based on their ability - we have to turn this argument on its head,” she said.

While the Faculty event was focused on gender diversity specifically, Ms Denham said the wider ambition of the Scottish Government is to “create a more diverse legal profession that reflects the people that it serves”.

“When I was appointed minister for community safety with portfolio responsibility for the legal profession last year, I said then, and I’ve said since, that one of the many things I want to do in my time in this office is to make major and lasting progress towards creating a more diverse and equal legal profession in Scotland,” she said.

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“Shattering the glass ceiling that still acts as a barrier to too many women, young people and other disadvantaged groups is a key part of my aspirations and the aspirations for the Scottish Government.

“We want to make sure that every person who is thinking of entering the legal profession and indeed every legal professional working in Scotland has the opportunity to fulfil their full potential.

"Where no one is held back by the background or the circumstances into which they have been born, by their race or religion, their sexual orientation, their disability, their gender or any other factor.”