A meeting of minds

David Wurtzel reports on the first meeting of the Middle Temple Women’s Forum

The recent survey Barristers’ Working Lives – released by the Bar Council and the Bar Standards Board – asked self-employed practitioners why they were working at the Bar. The respondents were provided with many choices from which a number could be ticked. Only 2% selected “work life balance (control over)”.  This fact, long felt but now starkly evidenced, was one of the underlying themes behind the decision to establish the Middle Temple Women’s Forum which gathered together in Middle Temple Hall for the first time on 6 March, 48 hours before International Women’s Day. Whether or not there were, as estimated, more women in Hall than there had been since 1570, the attendance of some 300 was an impressive turn-out. They included members of all Inns, women of all calls, judges, representatives from the Bar Standards Board and other bodies, the chairman of the Bar and the Lord Chief Justice.


The aim of the forum is to “inspire and support female members of the Inn throughout the course of their careers”. It would also like to see other Inns follow suit. There was a welcome from Catherine Quinn, the first female under treasurer of any Inn, and from Professor Dawn Oliver QC, Middle Temple’s 2011 treasurer and the first academic to hold the job. The keynote address came from Lady Justice Hallett, Inner Temple’s 2011 treasurer (2011 was the year of the three women treasurers) followed by a panel discussion.

Sobering statistics

The results in Barristers’ Working Lives were cited. The survey did provide sobering and useful statistical confirmation of the issues which need to be dealt with. About 46% of the Bar under 12 years’ call is female. Twelve years’ call is also the time when the retention levels fall. Since 62% of barristers are called under the age of 25, it looks as if children/work/life balance are the crucial factors. Over the age of 30, far more women who remain at the Bar are single than are men: 42% v 30% in their 30s; 28% v 15% in their 40s; and 18% v 8% in their 50s.

More men (52% v 41%) than women have dependent children but where there are dependent children it is not the men who look after them. Two-thirds of barrister mothers take the main responsibility for providing or organising child care, 23% share it with their partner and in only 11% of cases does someone else take the main responsibility.

The figures for men are the reverse: 4% of men have main responsibility, 26% share it and for 70% of barrister fathers someone else organises their childcare. Despite these responsibilities, family law, where 64% of practitioners are women, shares with crime the longest (55) working hours per week.

Are chambers helping?

Nowadays in 80-90% of instances there are policies in place in respect of equal opportunities and for maternity/paternity leave. However, only a third of respondents said that their chambers had a flexible working/work life balance policy and another third did not know if chambers did or not, the only area where there was such a high level of ignorance.

Although one would hope that a self-employed profession would be free from bullying or harassment, this does not appear to be the case: 11% of women reported that they had personally experienced bullying or harassment and 13% had personally experienced discrimination at work.

More strikingly, 15% of women had observed bullying or harassment in the workplace while only 6% of men said that they had, leaving open the question of whether this only happens when women are the bystanders or whether the men do not, in fact, recognise that it is bullying or harassment.

Dogged determination

Lady Justice Hallett did not apologise for delivering a very similar message to the one she had given a few days before at the law firm Linklaters: the issues were the same. She recalled how in her own career she had received a helping hand up the ladder and was motivated by her own “obstinacy/dogged determination”. The latter got her into Oxford despite the discouragement of her own school, and where she discovered that women needed someone “to discuss the high flown and the mundane”. At the Bar she had the advantage of a head of chambers who was an old-fashioned autocrat but who believed in equal opportunities.

That was the situation then: women role models were few and far between but she was mentored by far-sighted men. She networked with the Bar Council and the South Eastern Circuit, both of which she came to lead (2013 should see at last a second woman chairman of the Bar). She has grave doubts about resolving inequality without tackling the issue of the quality of life. “More women are not willing to work themselves towards an early grave and vote with their feet”. There is a moral and legal duty to think of those lower down in the pecking order and to lead by example in not working all hours: for the sake of “health and happiness of all”, there should be flexible hours. Ever the realist – “Am I confident about the future? Ish” – she fully supported the aims of the forum.

Jo Delahunty QC of the family Bar felt it is possible to balance practice, children and a marriage, as she has been able to do, although she admitted that the Bar “taints you”; either your practice or your work/life balance. “We do think we have to work every hour of the day”, always being available to solicitors, but the individual must make the balance. She is the daughter of a single, working mother who chose law for Jo because of its perceived security and prestige. At the Bar she deals with clients who have a poverty of expectations; the subject matter is “gross sexual abuse or dead babies”; “it makes you break your heart and your soul” (only 24% of family practitioners in the survey stated that they did not feel emotionally drained by their work). Her advice was clear: “there is always another barrister”, do not distance yourself from those more junior, and persevere and use the companionship of others.

Pause for thought

The panel members who represented a range of work echoed the same themes: the challenge of controlling your inflow of work, the mismatch between the cost of childcare and the fees from publicly funded work, and the disaster of losing experienced women practitioners. These matters were reflected in the questions from the floor. Asked if one should aim for “a quick fix now or a slow process?” it was thought that a “quick fix now” created a picture of positive discrimination. Career breaks were recommended: “if in doubt, don’t leave; pause”.

In her opening address, Oliver spoke of establishing networks supporting women in discharging caring responsibilities and their practice. Workshops and future events for the forum are planned for later this year.

After the speeches there was a reception, giving the hundreds there the chance to talk about the issues and to realise that the companionship of others is indeed at hand.

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David Wurtzel

David practised at the criminal Bar for 27 years and is a door tenant at 18 Red Lion Court. Prior to his retirement, he was a consultant in the CPD department at City Law School and consultant editor of Counsel. David is a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.