Women in law need a pan-European dialogue on status

It is not just the UK profession which has to address its lack of female representation. Cherie Booth QC uncovers a European problem

The role of women in the law is an issue close to my heart. This is not just because I am a female lawyer but because I believe it raises fundamental questions about justice and human rights.

Over the last few months I have been fortunate enough to debate this matter with women from the UK and abroad. In April, I chaired the successful Women Lawyers' conference in London and, on 4 June, a group of women from the UK attended the Women in Law conference in Paris. I also chaired that conference, which was addressed by Elisabeth Guigou, the first female Minister of Justice in France, and our own Heather Hallett QC, and Jane Whittaker from the Law Society. Women lawyers attended from France, Spain, Sweden, Poland, Russia and Germany.

I came away from this second conference realising the significant progress made in the UK. Many of the continental women were amazed to learn it was considered serious professional misconduct to discriminate against women solicitors and barristers. Although the sex discrimination law applies to all EU member states, the continent's legal professions have not generally translated that law into a rule of professional conduct yet.

It is often only when the profession itself takes this issue seriously that real progress is made. Indeed, the conference heard a proposal that the Paris Bar look across the Channel to the English Bar's code of conduct with a view to adopting a similar professional rule.

However, both conferences found the same pattern of women's progress in the law – few make it to the top. In Paris we had a number of firsts; the first woman chair of the English Bar, the first woman chair of the Paris Bar and the first woman judge in the Cour de Cassation.

But these women are still the exceptions and the pattern of law's women throughout Europe is similar. Nearly 50 per cent of recruits to the profession are female, but as you look up the profession's hierarchy men become dominant. In France women are concentrated in the salaried ranks of the judiciary and in the lower courts and there are far fewer women in the lucrative areas of private practice.

All at the conference agreed there needed to be a change of culture in the profession to combat this and to support the qualities of women in the law. However, it is essential we involve men in this process, many of whom are also frustrated by the old-fashioned and work-centred definition of success in the profession.

Across Europe we have much to learn from each other and all agreed we should meet next year and try to establish a regular Europe-wide dialogue among women in the law.