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25 September, 2008  
London Calling

Leverhulme catches up with the Brosnahans at a dinner in Ireland and falls to talking about the rough trot women have had in the law. Sophie Hamilton, senior partner at Mayfair firm Forsters, lights the way

imageThe well-dressed lady, 75 this year and still presiding as a judge in California, leant across her smiling husband as she spoke to me at dinner in Malahide, County Dublin, last week.

Carol Brosnahan was at Harvard in the fifties. She was one of nine women at the law school in a class of 525.

“The dean invited us to afternoon tea” she told me.

“We thought it was a real treat, just us women, until we discovered his real purpose. He wanted to tell us we should give up the law because we were taking the places of men and they would need the jobs.”

One of her classmates was Ruth Bader Ginsberg who in 1993 became the second woman appointed to the US Supreme Court. Another classmate became Brosnahan’s husband.

* * *

The dean’s attitude was nothing new. It had a rich judicial pedigree.

In 1872, the US Supreme Court ruled that a woman had no constitutional right to practise law.

imageDavid Pannick in his seminal work on Advocates (OUP 1992), quoted Justice Bradley (in an opinion joined by two other justices) that, “the paramount duty of woman [is] to fulfil the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.”

By Creator, I assume he meant “men”. But even those women who fulfilled the noble and benign offices were subject to criticism.

In a newspaper article for the New York Herald in 1912, the great American justice, Louis Brandeis (pic)wrote:

“More families are ruined through the faults and extravagances of the woman of the household than through the husband’s failure to increase his earning capacity.”

Brandeis continued:

“The woman who spends the bulk of her time running to this or that club or card meeting will soon bankrupt her husband, unless he is a Croesus, if indeed she doesn’t kill him with indigestion beforehand.” (Quoted in Mason on Brandeis, 1946 Viking Press)

imagePannick also mentioned the refusal in 1903 of Gray’s Inn to call Bertha Cave to the Bar because she was a woman, a decision which was upheld by a tribunal comprising the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and five other judges.

In opposing women’s suffrage in 1910, the future Lord Chancellor, F.E. Smith (pic), argued that women did not need the vote. Their interests were more than adequately cared for by male gallantry. Smith predicted:

“In 2030 women will still use men as the media by which their greatest triumphs are wrought; they will still be able by their wit and charms to direct the activities of most able men towards heights which they could otherwise never hope to reach.” (F.E. Smith by John Campbell, Jonathan Cape, 1983.)

* * *

A week or so ago, some 50 years after the Harvard dean’s comments, The Lawyer reported that more women were breaking into the top ranks of the UK’s leading law firms than ever before.

The number of women equity partners rose by nearly 4.5 percent despite a fall in the overall number of equity partners in the top 100.

* * *

Number two on the list was the Mayfair firm of Forsters, which recorded 44.8 percent female partners.

Stepping down as senior partner is Sophie Hamilton, who described her management style to The Lawyer as follows:

“It’s just a question of attitude – if you treat people as equals, they’ll treat you as an equal. You have to manage people and sometimes you have to have difficult conversations with them. It isn’t about having lots of meetings.”

imageHamilton (pic) has been senior partner of Forsters since 2001. She was a partner at Frere Chomley from 1986 to 1998 and on the board of Nottingham Trent University for seven years.

Sophie was also chair of Nottingham Law School in its glory days when legal education was revolutionised in the UK.

I was interested as to whether women were disadvantaged by taking time off to have children. She said:

“Taking time off is not a real issue. Most women on a serious career track don’t take a full year off. They are usually back at work within six months. The real issue is the same for anyone who has a young family: suddenly you have a new call on your emotions. It strikes women on the whole more than men. When there is a crisis, it is usually the mother who has to sort it out.”

I asked her if there was a prejudice against women in the legal profession. She said that with a few exceptions, things are better these days. “You don’t have to fight all the time.”

However, she is sceptical about the law firms who broadcast their flexibility and boast about the way they treat women.

“It’s the wrong message. In a way women are made to feel like second class citizens because all these arrangements are made for them. We don’t want people to notice whether you’re a woman or a man. Clients don’t notice so why draw attention to it?”

imageWhat about women at the top who block or don’t encourage the way of other women coming through the ranks?

She thinks the first round of successful women like Margaret Thatcher (seen here) did not do feminism a service.

In 11 years as Prime Minister, Thatcher only appointed one woman to the cabinet from eight junior female ministers.

It often helps, says Hamilton, if the woman’s husband or partner is not an ambitious lawyer. Hamilton’s husband is an academic.

“Two law partners in the family make it hard to bring up a family.”

I asked her how women in law firms should be encouraged?

“Women need role models – people who’ve done it before and can talk about it.

“I don’t go in for this idea that being in the office at 7:30 am and leaving at 11 every night is what is required. The ability to keep a client happy and get the work done is what matters. One of our female equity partners has three children and works three days a week but she juggles things very well. You are only going to be successful if you give the clients the service they want. If that means missing a concert you’ve had your heart set on or telling your friends you can’t have a night out with them, then so be it.

“It’s a wonderful career and you can make a lot of money, but it comes at a price and you have to be sufficiently interested to make some sacrifices.”

* * *

We still have some way to go. I reported Hamilton’s remarks to a retired partner of a City law firm. The retort:

“I don’t care what she says; some female partners have the maternal instincts of rock spiders.”

* * *

imageBack in Malahide at the dinner, Jim Brosnahan (pic) was fielding questions about his career. Like his wife, he continues to practise. He has quite a reputation in the US as a trial lawyer.

Over the years, the Brosnahans must have been to many dinners like this.

Subtly, with pride and hoping no-one would notice, his wife of 50 years gently squeezed his knee.