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Elaine Motion: Proud to be following in Ethel Houston’s footsteps

As a lawyer specialising in human rights and civil liberties, I have stood up for equality throughout my career.

That, of course, includes equality for women and I am immensely proud that recent appointments in our firm mean Balfour+Manson’s partnership now has a majority of women.
The promotions of Stephanie Zak, Sarah Shiels and Lynne Mulcahy mean we have 13 female and 11 male partners – the largest law firm in Scotland, to our knowledge, to have more women than men in the partnership.

This would have been a source of great pride to Ethel Houston, the first female partner of any law firm in Scotland. She was assumed partner at Balfour and Manson back in 1949, just one of four partners at a time when women were generally not welcome on the Edinburgh legal scene.

Ethel went to the University of Edinburgh to study law at just 16 and her obituary in The Scotsman described her as “non-conformist, feisty and a fiercely independent thinker”.

Some of those adjectives – feisty and independent in particular – might well be used for some of our modern-day partners, perhaps myself included!

Ethel Houston, who also worked at the code-breaking centre Bletchley Park and was later awarded an OBE, died in 2017 aged 93. It is a great privilege for me – and all our female partners – to follow in the footsteps of Ethel.

I was proud to speak at a packed thanksgiving service to her a year ago in St Paul’s and St George’s, Edinburgh. Ethel was one of the first two women to join the Law Society of Scotland’s Council, serving between 1975 and 1981 and blazing a trail for many women who have since followed her lead. She was one of two women elected to the Royal Commission on Legal Services in Scotland and, in the mid-1980s, sat on the Commission for Racial Equality.

On evenings off, she worked at the Edinburgh Legal Dispensary, established to give free advice to the poor. She was awarded honorary membership of the Law Society of Scotland in 2009.

Ethel was also described in her Scotsman obituary as resilient, ingenious and determined, characteristics that all our solicitors strive to live up to. We have some formidable legal talent at the firm – male and female – and all our promotions are based solely on talent and the ability to do the job.

Stephanie Zak has been promoted because she is a brilliant young commercial lawyer; likewise, Sarah Shiels because of her excellence in employment law and Lynne’s exceptional skills in family law. Our female partners cover the whole range of our legal services – from family law through to employment, private client, litigation and commercial law. Shona Brown heads up our Private Client team, Shona Smith leads on Family Law and Julie Clark-Spence runs our growing Aberdeen office.

The gender profile of the legal profession in Scotland as a whole is shifting as a majority of young females enter the profession. The last full-year statistics showed 65 per cent of new trainees coming into the profession in Scotland were female, with the figure pushing beyond two-thirds (67 per cent) for students doing the Diploma in Legal Practice.

Over time, we will see more female-dominated partnerships and many more female legal leaders. We have already seen a raft of female Law Society of Scotland presidents, while Lorna Jack recently completed a decade as Chief Executive of the Society. Christine O’Neill has just been re-elected for a third term as head of Scotland’s largest indigenous law firm Brodies, while Tamar Tammes was named last year as Managing Partner of Burness Paull, the second-largest Scottish-headquartered firm.

These women are in senior positions because they are excellent leaders, not because they are women. Similarly, our three new female partners have earned promotion based on talent and excellence – like Jamie Foulis, assumed as partner in 2017 at the age of just 29. We will continue to promote emerging legal talents like Jamie, Stephanie, Sarah and Lynne whatever their gender or background.

I think Ethel Houston would be proud of what we have achieved –and continue to achieve – at Balfour+Manson.

As a firm founded in 1888, people sometimes think of us as rather traditional; the truth is very different. Times are changing and Balfour+Manson is delighted to be well ahead of the curve – just like it was in 1949 when Ethel Houston joined the partnership.