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Women in law: Partner and Head of Department

View profile for Claire Read
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One hundred years ago, the Sex Disqualification Act was passed and this allowed women to become solicitors and barristers. The women that fought for this change were pioneers and, because of their determination, I have been able to undertake a job that I love.

When I started looking for my training contract 21 years ago, there was still sexism within the industry. For example, women solicitors were ‘guided’ towards family law or non-contentious areas such as wills and probate, but that is not why I chose wills, trusts and probate for my area of specialism! I chose wills, trusts and probate because I really felt I was helping clients at a very difficult time, or saving them lots of money so that future generations could benefit. Today, I am a Partner in Birkett Long, sit on the Management Board and am Head of Department for the Private Client Teams. I have answered the questions below with regards to how I have found my career in law.

When did you start your career in law?

I managed to secure a training contact after completing a Masters’ degree in Medical Ethics and Law. The competition was tough and I felt a Masters’ degree would give me an edge over the other hundreds of applicants.

What made you want to become a lawyer? 

I had no compulsion when I was at school to become a lawyer but I loved to be organised (and to organise others!). Therefore, at the age of 16, I left school and I undertook a legal secretary’s course. During this course, I had to undertake Law modules and I loved them. I can still remember the essay I had to write - Occupiers’ Liability. It was possibly not the most riveting of subjects but I found it enthralling and, the rest they say, is history.

What changes have you seen within your career? 

We now have far more female candidates applying for our training contracts than we have male candidates. When I applied for my first training contact it was the other way round. Today, there is definitely no ‘guiding’ of individuals into a certain area of law because of their sex, or anything else for that matter! We want to equip all of our trainees with the skills to be able to feel confident in any area of law that they may wish to specialise. 

How do you feel it has been to progress within your career? 

Fortunately, very easy because Birkett Long is a progressive firm that does not stereotype or pigeon hole. I knew what I wanted to achieve, and was helped along the way. I also knew that Birkett Long did not discriminate or stereotype because I was made a partner whilst I was on maternity leave. Our positive attitude is one reason why we have Gold Investors in People.

Do you find the history side of this interesting?

(In 1888 Eliza Orme was the first woman to gain a law degree. It was only in 1919 when the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act came into force that four women with first class degrees from Cambridge were allowed to pass their law exams and become lawyers.). 

I find it really interesting, but as we know from any social change, whether that be in connection with race, religion, sex or sexual orientation, ingrained behaviour and dispelling stereotypes takes time to change. I love the fact that my daughter (who is 11 years old) feels that there are no barriers as to what she may like to do, whether that be serving on the frontline in the Special Forces or an astronaut. There will always be people who discriminate, stereotype or pigeon hole others and whilst we can tackle those people, Eleanor Roosevelt’s comment springs to mind: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. 

Do you think enough has changed in the last 100 years – what has stood out to you most / what other changes would you like to see? 

The fact that there is a higher percentage of women solicitors than male solicitors shows the change that has occurred in the last 100 years. However, the percentage of women in the role of partner in London firms is substantially lower than the regional counterparts, and there are fewer women in senior management roles. We are proud to have an equal partnership with a number of partners working on a part-time basis, and most of our team leaders are women. 

Claire is based in our Chelmsford office and can be contacted on 01245 453835 or claire.read@birkettlong.co.uk.

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