Famous Women in Law - International Women’s Day | LTC
Image split into squares with female symbol overlaying it

Famous Women in Law

The 8th of March is International Women’s Day. To celebrate we profile just a few of the brilliant female lawyers who have pushed the boundaries of their profession.
Early pioneers By 1903, Ivy Williams had completed an LLB and LLD from the University of London and had also taken all the examinations for a Law degree at Oxford – yet was prevented from receiving her qualification because of the unjust regulations preventing women from matriculating and being awarded degrees. She also lived at a time when women were prohibited from being barristers.

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 swept away some of the gender barriers and in May 1922, Ivy Williams was the first woman to be called to the English bar. She never practised but she was the first woman to teach law at a British university.

Williams was soon followed to the bar by Helena Normanton who practised. Normanton was also the first woman to lead a High Court case, one of the first two women appointed as King’s Counsel, and – in an entire career that broke new grounds – in 1925, she became the first woman to conduct a case in the USA, and in 1948 she was the first woman to lead the case for the prosecution in an English murder trial. She campaigned for the reform of divorce law, was a pacifist and was the first married British woman to have a British passport in her birth surname.

To the Supreme Court and ECHR

Other milestones took longer. In 1945, Sybil Campbell became the first woman promoted to the post of full-time judge in England and was the only holder of that title until her retirement in 1961. Her early career was colourful: she led investigations into sweatshops and – upon her parent’s insistence – carried a gun to work although unknown to them, she never loaded it with bullets.
Extraordinary women in Law often have multiple achievements. Brenda Hale, Baroness of Richmond was the first woman appointed to the Law Commission in 1984, then the first woman to join the House of Lords as a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary. In 2009, she was the first female Justice of The Supreme Court then, finally, its first female President in 2017. She was also the first female QC to take a case to the European Court of Human Rights where she successfully argued that the UK government was in breach of the convention by failing to give parents the right to apply for contact with children who are in the care of a local authority. In 1974, Barbara Calvert (Lady Lowry) became the first female Head of Chambers when she founded 4 Brick Court.

Commercial lawyers

Fast forward to the present day and read about the likes of Jessica Adams – partner at Macfarlanes. She’s featured in The Lawyer’s “Female Private Equity Stars”, Legal Business’s “Female Deal Stars” and works on intricate group restructurings and M& A acquisitions and disposals for a range of clients within private equity, asset management and global corporations. Another great success is investigations and white-collar lawyer Christine Braamskamp who is Co-chair of Practice for Jenner & Block. Christine is a top-tier lawyer with massive experience in compliance law relating to sanctions, whistleblowing, corruption and anti-money laundering advice. Having practised in the Netherlands and now living in London, she’s proof that a legal career can be truly international.

In-house counsel

In terms of in-house lawyers, inspiration comes in the form of Dr. Funke Abimbola and Fiona Dormandy.

According to Women in Law organisation First Hundred Years, at the start of her legal career, Funke Abimbola was told she was “too competitive for a black woman”. Since then, she has become the most senior black lawyer in the pharmaceutical industry, growing her career while being a single mother. She led the UK & Ireland legal team of biotech giant Roche, is now Global General Counsel at Cycle Pharmaceuticals, is the founder of the International Women Leader in Life Sciences Network, winner of Career Woman of the Year and Most innovative European in-house lawyer and is a TEDx speaker. She was awarded the MBE for services in helping to diversify the legal profession.
Fiona Dormandy is General Counsel EMEA at Airbnb and has helped the company negotiate numerous regulatory challenges. She manages a large team across jurisdictions and has been with Airbnb since it was a start-up. She’s typical of the smart legal brain that helps grow cutting edge, digital new enterprises.

Celebrity lawyers

Some of the best-known women in public life are or have been lawyers. Margaret Thatcher was a barrister before becoming a politician. For a while, Cherie Blair was one of the UK’s most prominent human rights lawyers. More recently, Sharmishta “Shami” Chakrabarti, Baroness Chakrabarti, was described in The Times as “probably the most effective public affairs lobbyist of the past 20 years”. She was the director of civil and human rights group Liberty before becoming a senior politician in the Labour Party.
Ayesha Vardag – founder of Ayesha Vardag Solicitors – is nicknamed the “divorce lawyer to billionaires” and is credited for helping to make London the divorce capital of the world.

Amal Clooney is one of the highest profile lawyers in the UK and is its special envoy on media freedom. A refugee from Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s, Amal has been involved in some of the world’s most notable civil and human rights actions and is currently pushing the UN to start officially investigating the targeted state killings of human rights defenders and journalists such as Jamal Khashoggi.