Legal history made as more women than men granted top lawyer titles

Barrister's Wig

28 June 2022

For the first time in Irish legal history more female lawyers than male have been added to the ranks of senior counsel.

Twenty women and 14 men made the latest list of lawyers to be granted “patents of precedence”.

Patents are granted by the Government on the advice of an advisory committee which includes the presidents of the superior courts and the Attorney General.

The committee does not distinguish between applicants’ genders when making recommendations.

However, senior counsel lists have historically been dominated by male lawyers, in part due to a higher number of applications from men.

But this year has seen a surge in female appointments following calls from Justice Minister Helen McEntee, the Irish Women Lawyers’ Association (IWLA) and the Law Society for more women to apply.

“For the first time, the number of women named is greater than the number of men,” said Law Society president Michelle Ní Longáin.

IWLA chair Aoife McNicholl said it was great to see the level of successful female applicants becoming “more reflective of the profession, but also of the society we are serving”.

Women make up more than half the solicitors profession in Ireland, while just over a third of barristers are female.

The IWLA held an event last year in which senior female lawyers outlined the path they took to achieving patents of precedence.

“The idea behind that is that we would provide people with the information to be able to make the application, because it is obviously a very competitive process,” said Ms McNicholl.

“Women are not good at putting themselves forward and sometimes you need someone who is ahead of you to show the way. The idea is that if you can see it, you can be it.”

Ms McNicholl said to become a senior counsel, lawyers must be able to show significant knowledge, experience and skill.

“It is fair to say there are challenges women have faced that make it more difficult for them to get to the advanced stage in their career to be able to apply,” she said.

“For example, women generally have more caring responsibilities, whether that is caring for children or for other family members.”

She said supports in relation to caring responsibilities and maternity were needed to allow women get to the stage in their career where they can build up the necessary knowledge and skillsets required to become a senior counsel.

Of the 34 patents granted this week, 28 were granted to barristers and six to solicitors.

The system of awarding patents dates back to the 1700s. Barristers who become senior counsel get called to the inner bar and can earn higher fees.

Solicitors have only been able to become senior counsel since 2020 under changes introduced in the Legal Services Regulation Act 2015.

Solicitors who become senior counsel will remain solicitors.

The awarding of the title recognises competence, probity and independence, and either advocacy skills, expertise in specialist litigation or specialist knowledge of an area of the law.

Among the 16 female barristers granted patents were Disclosures Tribunal counsel Sinead McGrath and legal advisor to the Houses of the Oireachtas Mellissa English.

The list of solicitors included four women, consultant and former Arthur Cox partner Deborah Spence, ByrneWallace partner Sinéad Kearney, Eversheds Sutherland partner Aisling Gannon, and Matheson partner Helen Kelly.

Some 61 legal professionals applied for the latest round of patents, with just over half being successful.

Twenty-four male barristers and 17 female barristers applied, while 13 male solicitors and seven female solicitors applied.

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