Elish Angiolini has achieved a lot of firsts in her career. The first woman to be appointed a regional procurator fiscal in Scotland, the first female – and the first solicitor – to take on the role of Solicitor General, and the first woman to hold the post of Lord Advocate. Continuing in that tradition, she was earlier this year appointed the Lord Clerk Register of Scotland, becoming the first female to take on the job since it was created in the 13th century.

It was, said WS Society deputy keeper and Burness Paull partner Mandy Laurie at Lady Angiolini’s swearing in ceremony, a significant moment to see such an “inspiring figure in the law and public life” take on the oldest of the great offices of state in Scotland.

Lady Angiolini is, she said, “a role model who combines all the qualities we uphold in the Scottish lawyer – learned in the law, of the utmost integrity, and grounded in common sense”.

That she is a role model for other females in the profession is of note, too. Women have come a long way in the 103 years since Madge Easton Anderson became the first woman to work professionally as a lawyer in Scotland – most of the top commercial firms have now been either led or co-led by women, the country’s second most senior judge, Lord Justice Clerk Lady Dorrian, is female, and high-profile jobs in the sector including justice minister, lord advocate, solicitor general and Police Scotland chief constable are all filled by women. But there is still much to be done.

In the Law Society of Scotland’s recent Profile of the Profession report – a wide-reaching study that is carried out every five years as a census of the sector – the organisation found that while women make up 61 per cent of those working in the profession they account for just 40 per cent of law firm partners.

So, while there are numerous success stories like that of Lady Angiolini, proportionally there are too few. Law Society president Sheila Webster has made it the mission of her year in office to try to change that.

“There’s a good number of women getting into the profession – the numbers continue to be high for women entering and starting degrees,” she said. “The difficulty remains that we’re still seeing a significant fall-off at the top end of the profession. Something is happening at the mid-career stage.”

Typically, what has happened at that stage is that women have taken time off work because they bear the brunt of caring responsibilities, whether for children or elderly relatives, and have found it hard to find a way back in.

“My focus, and I set my stall out on this, is that we need to try to understand what can be done to try to improve the number of women at the senior end who want to remain in the profession,” she said. 

“I’ve been having conversations with managing partners and chief executives and chairs of the larger law firms in Scotland and it’s interesting talking to them about what they are doing to understand what’s needed. Rather than having fixed rules on how things should work, it’s about asking people what they want when they come back to do their job. Most firms are now much more conscious about the importance of making it work.”

Janette Speed, head of Shoosmiths’ Scotland practice, agreed that more needs to be done to ensure the large numbers of women entering the profession are not put off from progressing as far as they can. However she stressed that having worked in the law for more than 30 years, things now are “much, much better than when I started”.

“There are plenty of women that have reached the top of the profession now and that’s a great advert for females wanting to get there,” she said. “We need to make sure that we are tapping and realising people’s potential. Firms have to be alert to how they promote excellence and performance and collaborative work; they have to have really top-of-market family policies and development opportunities. We have a whole bank of initiatives to make sure that female partners and female staff believe that they can get to where they want to be in terms of their career.” 

For Webster that means employers asking individuals what they want and how they want to get there and not assuming that everyone has the same needs. When that happens, everyone has the opportunity to succeed, as British and Irish Lions’ director of legal and governance Gillian Treasurer has shown.

Treasurer took on the “dream role” in the still male-dominated rugby world earlier this year but would never have got there if her previous employer, Scottish Rugby Union, had not tailored the legal head role around her when she first came on board, enabling her to do the work despite receiving a devastating medical diagnosis.

“For about a year I’d been feeling absolutely exhausted and quite ill and the day before [I was due to move back to Scotland to take up the job] I ended up in hospital where they found the biggest lung tumour anyone had ever seen – it was 18 centimetres wide,” Treasurer said.

“I was meant to be starting at Scottish Rugby the Monday after that X-ray and I still wanted to because I wanted a sense of normality and routine, but I didn’t want to start in a state. They were incredible. I had seven weeks, which were not great, then I had a massive operation, was off for three months then came back and the pandemic happened. In some ways, for me not having to go into the office every day and being forced to stay indoors was probably a good thing because I would have pushed it and probably would have hurt myself even more. If there’s a silver lining for me personally it’s that I was forced to stay indoors and recover.”

That job paved the way for her to join the Lions in a newly-created role that is allowing her to not only carve her own niche but work on her own terms too – something she believes other people making their way in the profession could learn from.

“I’m a millennial and I was never attracted to private practice because I’m not into the work-all-night thing,” she said. “When something like that happens to your health it solidifies that. I’m so lucky – I’ve got a massive scar and slightly less lung than I had before, but I’m fine – but when something like that happens you don’t think ‘I’m really going to miss my job’, you think ‘I’m not going to see my niece and nephew grow up’. It gave me perspective. I came out of it fine and I’ll always have that as a leveller.” 

Profile of the Profession: What the survey showed

Women now make up 61 per cent of those working in the Scottish legal profession, according to a new report from the Law Society of Scotland, though still account for just 40 per cent of law firm partners. 

More than 3,000 legal professionals – solicitors, trainees and paralegals – took part in the Profile of the Profession survey, which is conducted every five years.

In addition to showing the proportion of males and females working in the profession, the paper found that almost two-thirds – 61 per cent – believe it is problematic that comparatively few women are going on to achieve senior positions.

However, a much smaller proportion of men thought it was a problem than women – 76 per cent of female respondents versus 38 per cent of males. 

Those who believe there to be an issue view the struggle to balance career and caring commitments to be the primary reason (81 per cent).

However, 51 per cent view traditional networks and routes to promotion being male dominated as a key reason while 50 per cent blamed unconscious bias.

The survey also canvassed respondents on their mental wellbeing and found that women are more likely than men to have experienced some form of mental health issue over the past five years.

In total, 64 per cent said they had experienced mental ill health, with current trainees and females up to the age of 35 most affected.