Wisdom from women-of-firsts: ‘justice belongs to the people’

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Four formidable legal pioneers talked candidly about their lives and careers to a packed house at Gray’s Inn. Dana Denis-Smith reports


We can still count the number of women chief justices across the world on the fingers of two hands. Therefore, it was quite a highlight to have managed to bring into London not one, but four of the current and very recently retired women to have risen to the highest post in their country’s judiciaries in the last decade or so – from Africa to Australia. The four – Australia’s Susan Kiefel, Britain’s Baroness Hale, Canada’s Beverley McLachlin and Ghana’s Georgina Wood – the ‘formidable women: leaders and role models’, as Dame Linda Dobbs introduced them to a packed house at Gray’s Inn on 5 July 2018, quickly settled into a candid and intimate conversation about their lives and legal careers, from obstacles to achievements and, finally, their legacy.

The evening was co-hosted by First 100 Years and Gray’s Inn to mark the centenary celebrations of some women being granted the vote in the UK in 1918 – but also to launch the celebrations of 100 years of women being allowed to enter the legal profession because of the Sex (Disqualification) Removal Act 1919. These two centenaries, nearly two years apart, have shaped the journey of women in law and paved the way for them to climb to the very top of the profession. The panel was moderated by Professor Penny Andrews, Dean of Law at the University of Cape Town, and Genevieve Muinzer, founder of Ad Astra Communications and Vice-Chair of the Foundation for International Law.

Justice McLachlin, an avid reader from an early age, was advised whilst growing up that ‘a girl can’t do anything’ with a high reading score. Apart from her love of reading, she also talked of how important it’s been for her to grow up in a very diverse community. She said: ‘It gave me an appreciation for the place of everybody in the world.’ When asked what her proudest achievements were, she said being involved in decisions that made people’s lives better and same-sex marriage being allowed were highlights in her judicial career. On a personal level, like many parents she was also guilt ridden in juggling her family and work. ‘When I had a child, it was extremely stressful. Not because I thought I couldn’t do my job but because I thought I was the worst parent in the world. Years later my son said, “Get over it Mom, you were great.”’

Justice Wood said that if she had been asked at age 12 what profession she would like to enter, she would have said a medical doctor. At home, her parents actively encouraged her into a profession and she never heard them limit which she could seek to join: ‘My parents never said that it’s only women who can do such or such.’ Her career in the judiciary spanned 42 years, including reaching the summit of the judiciary, the first woman to hold the post. ‘As a court justice in a developing country, when you make up your mind that you are going to protect the independence of the judiciary, it is very rewarding,’ she told the audience. She further advised women in the legal profession ‘to do the best that you can, given the circumstances. Your work and your integrity will always work for you.’

Justice Kiefel recalled a conversation with one judge early on in her career who told her she should give up her career for her family. We all know the end to this story – she went on to become, in January 2017, Australia’s first woman Chief Justice. ‘People, as well as events, shaped my way of thinking,’ she said. She has worked since she was 15 and one of the things that most interested her was to make legal judgments accessible to those without legal backgrounds. As a barrister, she was very interested in how different judges write and admired simplicity and conciseness and her legal judgment writing style is influenced by this admiration for clear legal writing.

Baroness Hale was inspired by her own mother. She didn’t think so at the time. When she was 13, her father died suddenly. Faced with having to bring up two children as a single mother, her mother ‘dusted off her teaching skills’ and became a headmistress in their village school.

When Beverley McLachlin was little, there were few women who became lawyers and did something with their career. ‘There were very few role models. Women were not considered persons. In 1929, the Persons’ Case was issued by the Judicial Committee. Times were changing. The law had to change with society. My role model was these women who fought so long, so hard.’

And, to highlight what still makes lawyers proud of their profession today, Georgina Wood concluded that little else matches ‘the really good moments when justice has been served’. As for the best personal advice, this came from Baroness Hale: ‘The best way to learn anything is to write a book about it.’

Dana Denis-Smith is founder of First 100 Years (www.first100years.org.uk), CEO of Obelisk Support and a non-practising solicitor. She is also LexisNexis Legal Personality of the Year 2018.

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Dana Denis-Smith

Dana Denis-Smith is CEO of Obelisk Support and founder of the First 100 Years: www.first100years.org.uk