We were delighted to participate in a mentoring scheme organised by the Global Law Summit (GLS) to coincide with International Women’s Day 2014. The GLS is a one-off international business conference being held in London in 2015, coinciding with the 800th birthday of the sealing of Magna Carta. The mentoring scheme provided some “800 minutes of mentoring” by women lawyers to high achieving aspiring female lawyers in their vocational year. The aim was to assist in widening access to the legal profession for women.

With the aim of the scheme firmly in mind, we were paired up with an impressive female student on the BPTC (see box). We met her in chambers for an informal chat, during which we covered much ground. We talked about life at the Bar, our own careers and about her career goals and path thus far. Perhaps most importantly we gave her the opportunity to ask any questions she had and discuss any concerns she had about the Bar generally and about being a woman at the Bar. We found her to be a very talented young lady who would undoubtedly make a success of a career at the Bar. In common with others she had thus far failed to find a pupillage. We encouraged her to reapply. Her impression, based on interviews she had attended, was that women continued to be underrepresented in the profession. We discussed her concerns and we very much hope that we were able to dispel them.

The statistical picture

For those who follow the statistics, the ongoing need for this sort of mentoring may come as something of a surprise. Indeed, at entry level, women are very well represented. The figures for pupil barristers are illuminating: in three of the seven years between 2004-05 and 2010-11, the available Bar Council data indicates that female pupils outnumbered their male counterparts.

These figures are not, of course, replicated across the profession as a whole; 32.4% of the self-employed Bar are women, according to the Bar Barometer (November 2012). In Silk, the percentage was 11% in 2010, although the figures are so small that it is more instructive to consider numbers. The number of practising female Silks increased from 118 in 2006 to 152 in 2010. Perhaps more striking is that some 10 years ago, in 2004, only 147 female Silks had ever been appointed – by 2014 this figure has increased to 317. On first blush, however, given the figures at entry level, one might be forgiven for asking whether mentoring schemes and the like are still required. Having participated in the scheme, the answer is clearly yes.

Young women considering a career at the Bar do not look only at the entry figures: they also look at representation across the profession. Here the picture is less rosy, partly because the entry levels were historically less good and partly because of the important issue of retention. In addition, we are both aware from our own discussions with young women considering a career at the Bar that there is something of a perception problem. Anecdotally, our understanding is that some (naturally not all) women worry that old and inaccurate stereotypes about the Bar remain true and therefore that they “will not fit in”. They may not know barristers themselves and hence have no way of testing their assumptions. Add to this the concern that many young women (and of course men) have about making a career fit with their personal lives and one risks losing real talent unnecessarily.

The mere fact of giving students the opportunity to talk to women who are currently in practice helps them to understand the profession better, hopefully to allay any fears and enable them to focus on what they need to do to succeed. To take a simple example, our mentee was reassured to learn of the extent to which chambers are alive to diversity issues in recruitment and keen to attract a diverse range of applicants. This is something that is obvious to practicing barristers, but not at all clear to those in the foothills of their career. A conversation is a simple thing, and easy to provide, but it can make a real and invaluable difference to someone who simply has no way of knowing how real their worries are and how to solve them.

Of course, the proposed cuts to legal aid will very likely impact disproportionately on women practitioners – the Bar Council Exit Survey of December 2011 suggests that the greater number of women practise in the areas of publicly funded work. The real risk is therefore that the improvement in representation of women at the Bar will not only stall but in fact retreat. Some 66% of women practitioners leaving the Bar practised mainly in the area of publicly funded work. Much has changed since 1922, but there is still more to do.