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Chambers’ culture can make a huge difference to successful maternity leave, says Sarah Grainger.

In addition to offering generous maternity policies, the best thing a chambers can do to make retention work is to lead by example. Demonstrating that women members have taken maternity leave and returned to successful practices, and creating a culture where flexible  working is not seen as a problem, goes a long way to form an environment in which taking a maternity break can.


Victoria Butler-Cole, recently returned from maternity leave and member of the Bar Nursery Association, has high praise for her chambers, 39 Essex Street. “Our chambers have been excellent. There is a generous holiday from paying contributions and they have been extremely accommodating, not minding that I am  working four days a week and have to be home early every evening. Since chambers has quite a large number of female barristers who have returned successfully having had children, there are excellent role models, which is reassuring and inspiring.”

If chambers aren’t able to lead by example, Butler-Cole suggests linking up with the Association of Women Barristers’ mentoring scheme (see Counsel, Feburary 2009, p 18).

Head of chambers: buy-in

For Rebecca Tuck, on her second period of maternity leave from Old Square (where the rent free period is applied on return, typically when earnings are low, and the six months’ rent free is calculated on the pre-maternity period), agrees: “the key is to have a supportive and progressive head of chambers”.

Nicola Rushton, a barrister at Five Paper, certainly tested her chambers’ maternity policy when she had to start her maternity leave much earlier than expected, when she gave birth to her daughter at 24 weeks. “If leave had been limited to six months, as the Bar Council recommendation, I would have had to give notice.” Five Paper has a generous policy, guaranteeing 18 months’ leave, with the right to come back to the same desk (if returning full-time), completely rent-free for period of leave, with a three-month period of grace on return. The policy applies to adoptive parents, and partners are also able to take four weeks’ leave, with a proportionate remission from expenses. When Rushton returned, they reviewed the policy and find that it had worked well, but decided to add a charge of clerks’ fees on receipts for the first three months of leave, to ensure the policy was fair to the clerks.

Has Five Paper always been a progressive set? “We completely restructured under a new head of chambers in 2000,” says Rushton. “This has been reflected in the policies; you need it all written down to ‘take the heat out of it’. We have actually attracted female members to chambers from other sets because of our flexible approach and supportive culture, particularly our part-time working provisions.”

Richard King, head of chambers at Five Paper, explains: “It’s a different world from when the more senior members of chambers had children. What is best for chamber’s development is to have a maternity policy in place to enable people to have a proper period off and to come back with as little fuss as possible.

“We have a very cooperative culture, we work as a collective unit, divided into practice teams and that is how we are marketed, to provide each other with mutual support. People working here are very familiar with that style of working.”

Battles

Barristers who want to champion a more progressive maternity policy at your chambers; be warned, this is not a job for the feint hearted. One barrister I talked to, who wished to remain anonymous, recalled the battle to get their maternity policy through: “The animosity largely came from those men and women who’d already had children.” Ingrid Simler, Chair of the Equality and Diversity Committee, acknowledges the problem: “There has to be a recognition that giving a subsidised period to female barristers does effectively take money from colleagues’ pockets, so there will be antagonism. You have to ride it.”

Another barrister—again, who wished to remain anonymous—had hit a “brick wall” on presentation of a maternity scheme to the chambers’ management committee. “We were shocked by the level of animosity which arose, the feeling that ‘my wife didn’t need to work, we managed, so why should we subsidise you?’

“Team working is more common today, building on the cohesive chambers identity, but on the other hand are not supporting their members through the rebate system, when in reality the cost to chambers is quite small,” says the anonymous barrister. “This is a very depressing story,” says Simler, “and there is clearly more work that needs to be done to get the business value message across”.

Clerking culture

As key preservers of the relationship with solicitors, clerks’ buy-in is also crucial during a period of maternity leave. Horror stories of clerks answering the phone and saying “sorry, Ms X has left chambers,” are thankfully dying out, but we do need to shift thinking from ‘we can’t do that’, to ‘of course we can do that, how can we make it work,” says Grahame Aldous, EDC vice chair. Key to this, believes Aldous, is for individual barristers to make sure that their clerks have received diversity training. At 9 Gough Square, for example, all clerks are equality and diversity trained and “it does make a difference,” says Aldous. The Institute of Barristers Clerks (IBC) have worked hard to provide and promote diversity awareness training, and part of the new IBC/CLT BTEC, launched in November 2008, is a diversity module.

Certainly from Simler’s experience, on the civil side, clerks have been very supportive of her need to take time off. Senior male barristers, for instance, often take time out of practice to do work that doesn’t directly enhance the practice, for example sitting as recorders or on tribunals, taking up visiting professorships or write books. This is work that doesn’t directly enhance the practice, or bring in money to chambers. “But no one bats an eyelid about this,” says Simler. “Given that, women shouldn’t fear taking time off for maternity leave.”

Strength to strength

If you’ve worked hard to establish a practice, with a good following, this should stay with you. Some solicitors won’t notice if you take six months out of practice, although this may be more difficult in family and criminal law. There is certainly a culture of presenteeism and workaholism at the Bar, but it’s important to bust the myth of the necessity of this way of working. “The most important thing is to get the work done and be ready for court,” says Simler. “Whether you leave at 5 or 10pm should be immaterial. Instructions will keep coming if you do a good job. We need to fight the perceptions and ensure that the young people coming into the profession understand the advantages of self employment and don’t get sucked into the old way of doing things.”

After 14 months on leave, Rushton came back full time, and hers is very much a positive return story. “It took three months to build up my practice, then six months for the money to catch up.” Since then, her practice has gone from strength to strength. “I decided to rationalise my practice when I returned to concentrate on my core areas of commercial work. I did some focused marketing work on this, getting in touch with my solicitors etc, and this was enormously beneficial. My billings are now up compared with before my maternity leave when I had a broader focus.”

“There’s enough flexibility at the Bar to balance work with child care. I have now have a 70–80% paper-based practice, so there is some flexibility over when and where I can do this.”

Keeping in touch makes a big difference—as to whether you come back or not, and how successful your return is. Rushton wasn’t pressured to say when she was coming back; just as well, as with a premature baby in hospital for 4 ½ months it would have been impossible to commit.

Impact on publicly funded Bar

The publicly funded Bar has a disproportionately high number of women and black and minority ethnic (BME) barristers practising within it. Simler’s anxiety is “the impact of funding cuts on women and BME practitioners. We are seeing people leave the profession because these barristers can’t afford to have adequate childcare arrangements [ie nannies]. We are losing the part of the Bar that is made up of the majority of women and BMEs. We’ve battled to make diversity work at the Bar, and succeeded to a large extent at entry level, but our work [on retention] is being hugely undermined by the Government’s funding cuts.”

Pregnancy in Pupillage

Getting accidently pregnant a few short months away from my tenancy was never going to be best of career moves but I felt I had to tell chambers. They were initially fantastic and I was told that I had done the honourable thing. I was allowed to work my pregnancy “to term” and then come back as a squatter when the baby was born. When I came back I found it very difficult. My baby was not sleeping through the night yet and I found it hard to compete with the some of the more unreasonable demands the junior tenants when faced with the, equally unreasonable demands of my new born baby. I was also not able to visibly work late in chambers which, I felt, put me in at a disadvantage to the other pupils. I did eventually get tenancy, albeit at another set, with the help of the head of pupillage and my senior clerk. I will never forget their kindness which made all the difference between my sticking it out and quitting.

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