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100 years of women in law 1

03 Feb 2023 / Culture Print

100 years of women in law

This year marks the centenary of the first woman in Ireland to qualify as a solicitor (Mary Dorothea Heron) and the first female solicitor to obtain a practising certificate in the State (Helena Mary Early).

The Law Society will be paying tribute to these remarkable women, as well as the first 100 women solicitors and other women leaders of our profession through a series of events planned for the year. Among them, the Society will host a special exhibition at Blackhall Place, while a centenary garden will be created and dedicated in order to commemorate this milestone year.

The Gazette is also marking this centenary with a series of articles that will spotlight the lives of pioneering women in the legal profession.

Mary Dorothea Heron was the first woman to be admitted to the Roll of Solicitors, on 17 April 1923. From Downpatrick in Co Down, she started her apprenticeship on 7 February 1920 in the office of her uncle, Thomas Heron, at TM Heron, Solicitors, Belfast.

She excelled as a student and her achievement as the ‘first lady solicitor’ in Ireland received recognition in Belfast, where three newspapers carried a report of her success. After qualifying, she continued working in the office of TM Heron until 1946, mainly doing probate work. She died on 9 October 1960.

Attempts to enter

The history of attempts by women to enter the legal profession in England is well documented. It culminated in 1913, when Gwyneth Marjorie Bebb, Maud Ingram, Karin Costelloe, and Lucy Nettlefold took a case against the Law Society of England and Wales, claiming that they should be allowed to sit its preliminary examination. The case was unsuccessful, both in the Chancery Division and the Court of Appeal.

Lord Justice Phillmore stated: “I do not say that this may not be an office suitable to women; what I say is, it has never been, in the view of the courts, suitable to women, and in all the discussions in those cases, in all the quotations with respect to hereditary offices that a woman may hold or her husband may hold in her right, there has never been a suggestion that the office of attorney was one which is open to a woman.”

The court determined that the appeal should fail and that, if there was to be a change in practice, it would have to be brought about by parliament. No doubt, the outcome of the Bebb case was watched eagerly by a small group of Irish women, some of whom were already working in family law firms, and other younger women students with aspirations to become lawyers.

Slow progress

In particular, Helena Mary Early, a Dublin woman (then in her mid-20s and already working in her brother’s firm), must have felt a degree of impatience with the slow progress of change. In Belfast, Mary Heron was embarking on a classics degree at Queen’s, and no doubt had formed an intention to qualify as a solicitor and join her uncle’s firm.

In 1919, after the act allowing women solicitors became law, both women went on to become firsts – Mary Dorothea Heron the first woman to be admitted to the Roll of Solicitors, and Helena Mary Early the first woman to apply for a practising certificate in the then newly formed Saorstát Éireann.

Although they both commenced their apprenticeships within a few months of each other in 1920, they qualified in 1923 into a radically different post-partition landscape of two legal jurisdictions, with the iconic Four Courts’ buildings in ruins.

Read and print a PDF of this article here.

The information above is based on content from the book Celebrating a Century of Equal Opportunities Legislation – the First 100 Women Solicitors.