Senior legal figures have reignited a debate on whether gender quotas should be introduced to improve diversity with their opposing views.

Delivering a lecture on judicial diversity earlier this week, the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, said his scepticism about targets 'extends to principled opposition to quotas', which he thinks are incompatible with appointment on merit and affect public confidence in the judiciary.

Lord Burnett said: 'They would undermine the overall standing of the judiciary and fatally undermine the authority of judges who were known or thought to be "quota judges". I suspect that there is barely a person in the country who would support the suggestion that a surgeon should be appointed by quota, rather than on his or her ability in the operating theatre. It is difficult to imagine anyone being comfortable being operated on by a "quota surgeon".

However, Dana Denis-Smith, solicitor-founder of The First 100 Years Project, which has been charting the history of women in the law, said the time has come for quotas.

Dana Denis-Smith

Denis-Smith: many firms 'hampered by industrial levels of inflexibility'

She said: 'One hundred years ago, the battle was for participation in our legal system. That battle has been won, with more women than men now entering the profession.  What we now need is to see equal numbers of men and women in leadership positions, receiving the same remuneration. Women are still not sufficiently represented at equity level, amongst QCs or in the judiciary and when they are, they are not paid as much as their male counterparts. We should be demanding equal representation and pay.'

Denis-Smith wants an end to the salaried-partner position 'that is so often where senior women find themselves - promoted to partner but without the voting power conferred by being in the equity, giving firms the cover of higher female partner numbers. When women are not adequately represented at the top things do not change'.

Although women have overtaken men as a majority of practising solicitors, they account for a third of partners. Several firms have set female partnership targets. But Denis-Smith thinks self-regulation 'will only take us so far'.

She said: 'There are many firms and chambers out there who recognise the importance of diversity but are hampered by industrial levels of inflexibility. The reality is that our workplaces can be incredibly rigid, inflexible and artificial places that don’t reflect our real lives. We need to start from the top, unravelling the practices and structures that do not work for women and increasingly, many men. We need to interrogate working conditions to see if they are fit for purpose rather than the expectation being that women should fit into them.'