The day I decided to write this piece had been challenging. The night before, our six-month old woke every two hours and our three-year old was up at 5am. At breakfast, the three-year old tipped a box of Alpen all over the floor. While I was under the kitchen table clearing it up, he took a bite out of every apple in the fruit bowl. Our baby is a stealth vomiter, so it was not until an hour after I left the house that I realised he had comprehensively decorated the back of my coat. Yet the really tricky part of the day came when I had a moment to myself later on. When I had time to think about the fact that I was going back to work in two days’ time.

As I watched my sleeping baby, it felt overwhelming. For reassurance, I cast my mind back to my return to work after my firstborn. I realised something. Back then, I had done my very best to pretend that nothing had changed. I worried that solicitors would think I was less committed because I had a baby at home. That I would be viewed as a less good junior than before because I might not be able to work the same punishing hours. So, I was careful who I spoke to about the trials and tribulations of parenthood. More so, who I spoke to about my fears as a returning mother at the Bar. This time, however, it is different. I do not want to pretend that my children do not exist, or that life has not changed. I want to talk openly and honestly about the challenges that come with juggling home life and a career at the Bar.

What has changed? I have changed. My original fears were not realised. Taking parental leave the first time did not cause my practice to collapse; solicitors continued to instruct me and I continued to be led. There was more to juggle, but I felt no less able to do the job well. In fact, I felt more motivated as I had used the time away to reflect on what I wanted from my practice. So, I no longer worry that I will be judged negatively if I admit to having had a tough day at work after a tough – broken – night at home. Since I took parental leave the first time, the world has also changed. ‘WFH’ has made acknowledging that people have home lives inescapable. I think, too, that the Bar has changed. There is still work to be done, but equality, diversity, inclusion and wellbeing are being prioritised by the profession in a way they were not even five years ago.

Retention and progression of women remain real issues. In July 2021, the Bar Standards Board published Trends in retention and demographics at the Bar: 1990-2020. This reported that since 2006/07 around half of all practising barristers under 35 are women. Yet, while the latest round of silk appointments is encouraging (44.6% of appointments going to women), in 2020 only 16.8% of QCs were women. The BSB’s report found ‘a consistent trend of female barristers leaving practice indefinitely after the early stages of their career in greater proportions than male barristers’, although the size of this difference is decreasing. The report cited research by the Bar Council from 2014/15 and the Bar Standards Board from 2016/17, which suggested that the most common reasons that women considered leaving the Bar were family and/or the difficulty of combining a career at the Bar with caring responsibilities. Given that a 2013 BSB and Bar Council survey found 57% of female barristers with children had the main responsibility for childcare compared to 4% of male barristers with children, this would seem to be an issue that disproportionately affects women.  

There is more support for barristers taking parental leave than ever before. There is the Bar Council guide for those taking a family career break and many chambers have greatly improved their parental leave policies and introduced other ways of supporting those returning to practice (our chambers has a parental and carer leave mentor scheme, for example). However, in my view, if we want to change the picture painted by the statistics, we all (not just women and not just those with the main caring responsibility) need to talk openly and honestly about the challenges that come with juggling a home life and a career at the Bar. Admitting it is hard not seeing your children for days because they are asleep when you leave for court and asleep when you get home might make your colleague in chambers (or your junior) having a similar experience feel less alone. Sharing a story about having been required to sit late with no notice and scant regard for the childcare consequences – or the impact on those with other caring responsibilities – might encourage conversations that engender change.

The challenge of achieving a ‘work/life balance’ at the Bar is one faced by many barristers, whether they have caring responsibilities or not. We need to ensure that striking a balance is seen as a valid and realistic goal for a barrister, not a guilty secret. There is still a tendency at the Bar to think that working into the small hours is an unavoidable part of the job. Some wear their work-induced sleep deprivation with pride. Having two small children, I cannot claim always to get enough sleep. But I do find that sufficient time away from work means I am more focused when I am at work and I do a better job as a result. And these days, it is not just my time at stake. I have also realised that I have more control over my workload than I had previously thought. With the help of my clerks, I have developed the courage to say ‘no’ to a good opportunity that would break this camel’s back, based on faith that there will be others.

What would make achieving a work/life balance easier?

  • Clear messaging about whether a reply to an email sent in the evening or at the weekend is needed urgently or not. I have noticed that some senior members of the Bar have an automatic message at the bottom of their emails making clear that, unless stated, the email is not urgent and the recipient should not feel the need to reply until they are at their desk. This could make all the difference to a keen junior, eager to please their leader.
  • Consideration of whether the timing of a meeting, seminar or networking event might be difficult for those with caring responsibilities – would starting an hour earlier or a breakfast or lunchtime slot be better?
  • Realistic timetabling of witnesses to minimise the risk of sitting late, avoiding sitting late unless absolutely necessary, and early warning and consultation if sitting late looks likely (ideally in a way that does not put anyone on the spot in open court).
  • Where written submissions will be lengthy and/or complex, building time for producing these into the timetable to avoid barristers working late into the night or over entire weekends.

No doubt others at the Bar will have further and better suggestions. The more we talk about the challenges that exist, the clearer the solutions will become.

I have been back at work for two months and I am feeling positive. Missing my boys is mitigated to some extent by the joys of being able to drink my coffee when it is hot and perform tasks two-handed. I was home after bedtime twice this week but starting late one morning so that I could do the nursery drop-off and spend bonus time with our baby went a long way towards making up for that. Taking a more holistic view, it has been a balanced week. I feel supported by my clerks and colleagues in chambers (not to mention my wonderful husband) and excited about the work challenges ahead. My goal for 2022? Keep the conversation going.