Janette Wilson: first woman solicitor to the Church of Scotland

Janette Wilson says she is disappointed that in other spheres, women lawyers have perhaps not made the progress they should have made
Janette Wilson says she is disappointed that in other spheres, women lawyers have perhaps not made the progress they should have made
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Janette Wilson made history when she became the first woman to be appointed as Solicitor to the Church of Scotland. Now, after 35 years at the Kirk, she is retiring and reminiscing about avoiding a bawling out in court and the day the Queen’s representative acquired a parking ticket at the General Asssembly.

Q What was it like for a woman lawyer when you started out?

A When I graduated from Edinburgh University there were five or maybe six women in my year out of more than 100 law graduates. Back then, you had then to do a two-year apprenticeship with a legal firm and sign a formal indenture and during my interview I was asked if I was engaged or thinking about getting married. The next question was whether I thought I would encounter any prejudice as a woman. I said, ‘Can l refer you to your previous question?’ To be fair, they still offered me a place.

It was common for people to call up and ask for Mr Wilson, and when I answered they would assume I was the secretary. But on the other hand, particularly when you appeared in court, there was a sort of courtesy toward the ‘weaker sex’ so that you maybe wouldn’t get the bawling out some of the men would get.

Q Last year the Law Society of Scotland found the gender pay gap [at its worst] is 42 percent. What advice would you give a young woman considering a career in law?

A I was glad to be the first female Solicitor of the Church and when the first female Procurator Standing Senior Counsel for the Church - was appointed. I’m personally disappointed that in other spheres women lawyers have perhaps not made the progress they should, with many senior roles especially in private practice still being male-dominated. But over the last year or two, I think there has been significant change. The appointment of the first female Lord Justice Clerk, Scotland’s second most senior judge, is a case in point and I am confident that women starting out now will be valued according to their own merits.

Q During your career you have lived through a lot of changes. Which changes have been most significant to the work of the Church?

A The world has changed so much in 35 years, for good and ill. I’ve seen a steady stream of new legislation bringing with it increasing compliance responsibilities for congregations in regard to charity law, fire and food safety, safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults, Health and Safety and data protection.

As a Church elder, I’ve welcomed seeing how congregations are increasingly reaching out into their communities and getting involved in initiatives such as food banks, drop-in cafes and projects to help the homeless - even if some of these activities may carry legal risk.

Q What memories of the Church will stand out for you?

A There’s so many, it’s hard to choose. I’ve always enjoyed the week of the General Assembly and also the Heart and Soul festival at the time in Princes Street Gardens when you get the chance to meet church members from Scotland and beyond and find out about the good work going on.

One year, the police had to be called to the Assembly Hall when a traffic warden ticketed the Lord High Commissioner. He didn’t know that the Queen’s representative doesn’t need a number plate and can park where they like.

I also have happy memories of being one of the Moderator’s party invited to Buckingham Palace as part of the celebrations for the Queen on both her Golden and Diamond Jubilees.

Q What changes do you see ahead for the Church?

A I see a greater involvement of elders and other office bearers in worship and pastoral care as the Church adjusts to having fewer ministers. While the decline in membership numbers is concerning, I remain optimistic about the Church’s future. Those involved seem much more committed; they come because they want to, not because it is socially expected.

Q What’s next for you?

AIt will be good to have more time to devote to the work of my own congregation at Duddingston Kirk. I’ve already had a turn on the rota to help out in the Garden Room, a super new café in the grounds of the Church, catering for those visiting Dr Neil’s Garden (www.drneilsgarden.co.uk) and the Church and glebe. I’m also looking forward to time for travel, to tame the garden and maybe read an entire book or two.