The Forum provides one main event a year and a number of workshops.

The research and recommendations of the Bar Council 2014–15 Snapshot come as no surprise and mirror our own feedback which has influenced the choice of Forum events. Key issues such as mentoring, application for Silk and judicial appointments, support within the Bar and planning for a long career, have been the subject of events and workshops over the past few years.

From the outset, the contribution by women in the senior Judiciary set the standard of speakers. Lady Justice Hallett gave the inaugural speech to a full Middle Temple Hall in March 2012, endorsing the need for role models and for encouragement which had not been available to her and others at the Criminal Bar. The event was followed in October 2012 by a similarly successful evening when Lady Justice Gloster spoke of her very different experience at the Commercial Bar.

Most of the problems identified in the Snapshot are not new. In April 2013, before the latest round of cuts, Frances Oldham QC’s subject was life for women practitioners at the publicly-funded Bar. Also in 2013, Lord Sumption spoke about judicial diversity and, as he has done very recently, expressed the view that it could take up to 50 years for equality of numbers to be achieved in the judiciary. One purpose of the Forum is to prove that view pessimistic by supporting the large number of talented women staying in the profession, those taking career breaks wishing to return, and those who leave and apply for judicial appointments having taken a route outside the self-employed Bar. At the April 2015 Forum, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, spoke about improving diversity at the senior Bar and in the judiciary, and the new steps being taken in outreach, mentoring by judicial role models and work-shadowing and a new route to the High Court through the appointment of Deputy High Court Judges who have not sat as Recorders. These are new initiatives and it is hoped that their introduction will lead to wider recognition and appreciation of the existing talent amongst women practitioners and a consequent rise in numbers.

A remarkable range of people have been willing to give their time to speak and advise on important issues. Last year’s workshop on “Applying for Silk” had not only a panel of recently appointed women Silks from a broad spread of practice areas who talked with great honesty and generosity about their own experiences, but also helpful advice on the applications process from Lord Carlile, formerly of QC Appointments, and a psychologist who encouraged women to be more confident and apply, not when 90% sure as research shows, but, like men, when 60% sure of success. The feedback from this workshop was overwhelmingly positive. One attendee, Rachel Crasnow QC of Cloisters, said of her subsequent successful application:

“I found the workshop incredibly useful for reasons I had not anticipated. Probably the most constructive aspects were the practical tips and know-how particularly to do with timing and preparation. There was a welcome emphasis on the fact that having children was not a bar to achieving Silk. It was also really useful to meet a consultant who described how she would help applicants prepare for interviews as well as review their application forms. I had already been considering applying for Silk before I attended the workshop – but it made a real difference to my attitude during that process and made the whole thing seem more achievable and less daunting.” 

At this year’s April Forum, A Survivor’s Guide to Staying at the Bar, a panel of women from different areas of practice provided invaluable advice on coping with the ups and downs of a long career, in some cases balancing illness and family problems. Three of those on the panel were Heads of Chambers – Alison Foster QC of 39 Essex Street, Helen Davies QC of Brick Court and Sarah Forshaw QC of 5 King’s Bench Walk. The two themes of the evening were summed up by the following comment:

“It was extremely valuable to hear the positive accounts of those who have the wealth of experience that your speakers have. I think it is important to know that despite being self-employed, it is not a profession in which you have to be alone. I was also intrigued by the information provided on routes to the judiciary and the flexibility a career on the bench provides.”

Although aimed at women practitioners, men are certainly not excluded. Two male barristers separately described the same Forum as the best career development event they had attended. One said “men would not be so generous and honest”. Harsh, perhaps, but it has undoubtedly been the candid contributions and quality of the range of speakers and panellists taking part which have made these events successful.

The Snapshot research also shows the effects of cuts on the high percentage of women in publicly-funded work. Looking at alternative careers, in 2014 at the Crossing Boundaries Forum, we heard from those who had taken paths away from the Bar. Mrs Justice Vivien Rose spoke of her experiences of leaving the Bar for the Government Legal Service, advising in increasingly complex areas of law, and then returning to the Bench in the Chancery Division via the Competition Tribunal. A varied panel from outside the Bar included Nicky Oppenheimer, a legal headhunter, and Margaret Caseley-Hayford, previously a planning barrister, solicitor and then head of legal at John Lewis plc. All had practical and encouraging advice for those who either wanted, or were compelled by circumstance, to leave the Bar, leaving open the possibility of return or later judicial appointment.

The Forum also recognised the need for networking highlighted in the research. After each event there is the opportunity to meet and talk to the speakers at a reception. The events are generally as soon after court hours as enables those in court to attend but leave at a reasonable hour. On 8 June 2015 we held the first Cross-Profession Networking Party, when over 400 women solicitors, academics, barristers and judges came to the Inner Temple Garden, providing a unique opportunity for women in all areas of the law to meet. Baroness Hale gave a typically uplifting welcome, and the event was so successful that it will be repeated next year. The feedback was very positive, noting that this was unlike many networking opportunities requiring attendance at unsociable hours, or at sporting or other events in which many had no interest. It was also attended by a significant number who would not normally have attended “women’s” events, but enjoyed the novelty of the relaxed testosterone-free atmosphere nonetheless.

Spring Forum: 18 April 2016

The balance of family and work has been extensively covered in the Forum. At next year’s Spring Forum, the emphasis will be on more practical advice about issues also affecting retention and progression. There will be advice on life coaching, discrimination procedures, building relationships with clerks, and managing cash flow and finances. Economics plays a significant part in the exodus of women, and cuts in fees at the publicly-funded Bar impact on the high percentage of women practising in these areas. The high cost of childcare in relation to earnings remains one of the main reasons for women leaving the Bar. It may not be possible to alter economic realities, but the aim of the Forum is to provide advice and support in dealing with them.

The Forum has been ahead of the curve in addressing the concerns highlighted by the Bar Council research, and will continue to provide advice on the issues which most affect retention and promotion. We aim to continue to innovate and set the pace in spreading understanding of the experiences of women in the law, and the pursuit of career goals which are, and should be achievable. 

Contributors Her Honour Judge Deborah Taylor and Rachel Langdale QC

Reaching out

In order to reach those outside London, Temple North Women’s Forum was set up in 2013 in Leeds by Dr Iyiola Solanke, Associate Academic Fellow of the Inner Temple. The theme of Surviving the Bar was the subject of their Forum on 19 October 2015 at the University of Leeds, when the Lord Chief Justice was again the keynote speaker. There is a hope that others will follow Dr Solanke’s lead and found similar events on each of the Circuits. Offers welcome.

Temple Women’s Forum

The Temple Women’s Forum was founded in 2011 by Middle Temple, with Inner Temple joining in 2013. Members of Gray’s Inn and Lincoln’s Inn are very welcome to attend if there is insufficient take-up from members of Middle or Inner Temple. The events have an increasing popularity and are generally over-subscribed, although there is invariably some late fall-out due to Court commitments, and in the future there may be a “late returns” scheme on the day.

The real picture?

The Bar Council’s Snapshot survey (Counsel October 2015) reported both past and recent experiences of women at the Bar. Counsel is going to monitor the issues raised in the survey and will be reporting again on the continuing debate. Please do get in touch, in confidence if you prefer, with your views and experiences, to help us ensure that the debate in our pages reflects the breadth of opinions at the Bar.

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