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President's column

21 January 19

Anniversaries in 2019 include the centenary of women being entitled to be admitted to the profession, significant as Profile of the Profession steers the Society's future equality and diversity work

by Alison Atack

I would like to wish you all a happy New Year and my very best wishes for 2019.

As always, while we look to the future, there are lessons to learn from our past. Anyone who like me has had the misfortune to drive up Glasgow’s University Avenue recently will have cursed the traffic cones around the building works. However, I’m sure any negative reaction will have disappeared on learning of the university campus development programme, the largest in 150 years.

On 8 October the foundation stone of the first building, the James McCune Smith Learning Hub, was laid. You may not recognise the name, but it is a significant one for our stance on the importance of equality and diversity, with an accent on social mobility. JM Smith was born a slave in New York City in 1813. He became the first African American anywhere in the world to gain a medical degree and he did this in Glasgow, having been denied entry to several American universities due to his race. By 1837 he had earned three degrees and was one of the best-educated Americans of his time, helped by our Scottish community.

While we cannot deny the city’s history and involvement in the plantations employing black slave labour, from which so much of its wealth emanated in the 18th and 19th centuries, it is a demonstration of Scots as leading proponents of equality. Indeed several members of Glasgow University were prominent in the movement to abolish slavery, including John Millar, Regius Professor of Civil Law in 1761.

Looking even further back (and staying in the west), I had the absolute pleasure of attending the Royal Faculty of Procurators in Glasgow celebrations of its incredible 350th anniversary in December. It was founded in 1668 at a time when Glasgow, with a population of 12,000, began to flourish as a trading city, and 120 students attended the university, about to move from its site at the Cathedral to Gilmorehill. It’s a testament to our profession that RFPG continues to serve the needs of lawyers in Glasgow and recognises the importance of collegiality for our future: 15 students received prizes at the celebration, including the Best Dissertation in Law.

It has to be said it has taken all 350 years for the Faculty to have its first female Dean. In Nicola Irvine’s safe hands, RFPG will be very well led, and this marks another step on the equality and diversity road.

2019 anniversaries – and goals

However, there is another historic decision which put Glasgow/Scottish lawyers on this road of fame. The first woman to gain a law degree at Glasgow University was Madge Easton Anderson, born in 1896. She commenced her three-year apprenticeship in 1917 with Maclay, Murray & Spens at 169 West George Street. In 1919 the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed, allowing women to become law agents for the first time. 

Madge was initially refused admission because she started her indenture before the Act was passed. She fought that decision successfully in the Court of Session and became the first woman lawyer in the UK. We will be celebrating this with a series of events marking her achievements and, since the passing of the 1919 Act, 100 years of women in the law. In 1937 Madge became the only person entitled to practise in England and Scotland.

Each of these examples occurred before the Law Society of Scotland was created in 1949. As we begin our 70th anniversary year and celebrate the role solicitors play in our society, it is vital to ensure we have an inclusive and progressive profession. It is the Society’s goal that everyone who enters the profession is treated equally and fairly in all respects, regardless of background and gender orientation. 

You will have seen that we launched our Profile of the Profession survey results, the fourth since we started this work in 2006. With almost 3,000 participants, this independent research offers a robust evidence base on which to build our action plans. It is also our blueprint for a more inclusive profession and something we as a Society have chosen to do.

There is good news in the findings, with figures for the gender pay gap and the number of women gaining partnerships improving, but more work needs to be done in other areas. For the first time we asked questions on bullying, harassment and sexual harassment, and we will look at ways of moving towards zero tolerance of such unacceptable behaviour towards colleagues. You can read the report findings at www.lawscot.org.uk/LawscotPoP

We will be bringing more information on this to you over the next few months. There is much to be done, and it is so important to carry on pushing for all to be able to achieve their career ambitions and be their whole selves at work – surely an ideal New Year resolution for the profession in 2019. 

Alison Atack is President of the Law Society of Scotland
president@lawscot.org.uk

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