Mentoring on the Western Circuit

The first Circuit-based mentoring scheme for women barristers is building confidence and camaraderie. Kate Brunner QC explains what sets it apart

The Bar may appear to be awash with mentoring schemes, but only a small minority of barristers actually have a mentor, and it is particularly difficult on the far reaches of Circuit to access support and events based in London. 

The Western Circuit Women’s Forum (WCWF) was set up in 2015 with the aim of improving the lot of women barristers on the Western Circuit. Much like the rest of the country, we have a stark imbalance in our senior ranks. The WCWF wants to encourage and help every woman who wishes to stay at the Bar to do so, and assist them to progress if they want to become senior juniors, QCs and judges.

Only 29% of self-employed barristers over 15 years’ Call are women, and only 13% of QCs. Lest it be forgotten how serious this imbalance is, it is worth recalling that the Bar Council Momentum Measures Report in 2015 concluded that, on current patterns, gender equality could never be achieved: ‘The attrition is such that it would require a very long period of substantial imbalance in favour of women at Call to achieve a balance of women in practice.’

The mentoring rationale

Mentoring in the workplace has a proven track record in various sectors and especially in industries where there is gender imbalance. Since 2000 women have made up around 50% of those Called to the Bar, but have a lower propensity to move from Call to practice and a higher attrition rate once in practice, according to Momentum Measures. This cannot simply be attributed to women ‘choosing’ not to work: the employed Bar boasts far better representation of women. There are clearly factors embedded in self-employed practice which make it difficult for many women to remain.

In 2014/15, the Bar Council published its Snapshot Survey, The Experience of Women at the Self-Employed Bar, which identified many of the challenges facing women barristers as gender-specific. It recommended that mentoring schemes and highly visible senior female role models would help to improve diversity at the Bar.

Equality and Diversity Rules have been set down by the Bar Standards Board in the BSB Handbook to make up for the fact that the self-employed Bar does not come under the Equality Act. Its online study in 2016, Women at the Bar, set out to discover levels of compliance. Close to one in four of the practising female Bar responded to the survey. While the report found examples of good practice, it also identified many instances of non-compliance, poor implementation of policies and unsatisfactory levels of awareness. It also found that harassment and discrimination continued, that women were reluctant to report unfair treatment, and that over two-thirds of respondents had considered leaving the Bar. Mentoring or seminars were most often cited as the best means of support for retention of women barristers and career progression.

Recent research also provides evidence of the link between lower levels of stress and mentoring among barristers (Bar Council’s Wellbeing at the Bar Report, 2015).

How the WCWF scheme works

The WCWF comprises a steering group of six: one judge, one Silk and four juniors in different disciplines from different corners of Circuit. It runs social and networking events, commissions research projects, and coordinates lobbying on issues which affect women. A central achievement has been to set up the first Circuit-based mentoring scheme for young women barristers.

Every female barrister on the Western Circuit under 10 years’ Call has been allocated a female barrister over 10 years’ Call as a mentor. That is about 70 pairs. Such was the enthusiastic response that we had a surplus of mentors. Mentees were not asked to put themselves forward but, rather, were allocated a mentor and invited to withdraw from the scheme if they did not welcome it. We matched younger women with a mentor in the same practice area, in different chambers, but in the same town where possible. Only one person withdrew, who was under 10 years’ Call but had significant experience as a solicitor: she became a mentor.

What sets it apart

Apart from the Circuit-centric approach, two elements of the scheme set it apart from other programmes. Firstly: after much debate we decided to involve only women mentors. Many women have been superbly mentored by senior men, and the scheme is not intended to be divisive or discourage such relationships. However, despite the surprising lack of data available to show why women leave, it is incontrovertible that one of the major causes is the difficulty of combining primary caring responsibilities with a career at the Bar. That was the clear message from the focus groups in the Bar Council’s Snapshot study. Any difficulty related to primary caring responsibilities currently affects women more than men: of the members of the practising Bar who stated to the BSB in 2016 that they had primary caring responsibilities for children, 63% were women. Allocating women mentors will make it easier for young women barristers to access advice about issues relating to primary care-giving/parental leave, as well as ensuring that each young woman has a senior female role model.

The second unusual aspect of the scheme is the automatic allocation of a mentor to every junior: concerns were raised that this might be seen as patronising. We did this because some women in focus groups conducted for the Snapshot project reported that they felt that they would be stigmatised as ‘pushy’ if they volunteered for any mentoring or career-progression scheme. We considered that an opt-out (rather than volunteer-in) mentoring scheme was likely to result in higher take-up.

What we ask of mentors

Mentors are issued with a guidance booklet, which was drafted by the WCWF with assistance from the Mentoring Foundation and the Bar Council. The mentor’s role is loosely defined but we recommend that mentors and mentees are in touch at least a couple of times a year. The process is intended to be flexible and conversational. It may be that a telephone conversation will suffice, or there might be periods where greater contact is appropriate. There is no prescriptive list of what topics the mentor can assist with, but they include networking, career planning, dealing with any perceived gender inequality at work and planning for maternity leave. Not all mentors will be familiar with every aspect of equality and diversity guidance and protocol; mentors are not expected to assist mentees directly with such issues and help is available from the WCWF steering group and the Bar Council. Our scheme is in its infancy and operates on a large scale with limited resources. We will consider in due course whether we can add formalised, periodic mentor swapping and similar refinements to our scheme.

Playing to our strengths

The challenges facing women at the Bar are not unique to our profession, but the Bar has the great advantage of a remarkable sense of fellowship. Senior women on the Western Circuit have demonstrated that fellowship in abundance with their involvement in this scheme. Mentoring is clearly not the only answer to the diversity problems, just as gender imbalance is not the only diversity issue, but the scheme seems likely to provide part of the solution. The Midland Circuit has decided to run a similar scheme, and other Circuits are considering doing the same. We may yet be able to boast of being the first profession to offer mentoring to all new women recruits. The blueprint which the Western Circuit has created is available to all: if you would like to know more about the practicalities of setting up the scheme, do email us at: wcwf@westerncircuit.co.uk.

Further information

WCWF Steering Group: Kate Brunner QC, Rachael Goodall, Jo Martin, Carol Mashembo, Selena Plowden, HHJ Corrine Searle, Caighli Taylor. WCWF is grateful for funding provided by the Western Circuit, and by the Inns of Court and for ongoing administration provided by Albion Chambers. Website: www.westerncircuit.co.uk/womensforum. Other mentoring schemes are summarised here.

Contributor Kate Brunner QC is a criminal and regulatory practitioner at Albion Chambers in Bristol

NO STIGMA, NO SUGAR-COATING: THE FEEDBACK

WCWF is running a study with Portsmouth University to research the scheme’s benefits, but in the meantime the feedback has been very positive. Mentors have spoken of a sense of camaraderie, and pleasure in meeting junior members of the Bar outside their chambers. Mentee feedback includes the following:

‘[The scheme] provides women with an easily accessible resource for guidance and advice, but also promotes a new way of thinking about women’s roles at the Bar.’ MK: junior tenant

‘Being a woman at the Bar presents a unique set of challenges, and having access to a more experienced female member of the Bar for advice, who has undoubtedly encountered the same challenges as you, is an invaluable resource. Seeking out this advice alone can be difficult without knowing where to look or having guidance as to how to go about it; there can still be a stigma attached to raising concerns about gender inequality and individuals are often, understandably, reluctant to do so.’ AJ: junior tenant

‘I feel like it will keep me motivated about returning to practice after maternity leave’ JL: mother of 2

‘The scheme has given me the opportunity to speak to [my mentor] about issues affecting women at the Bar in a relaxed and informal environment, away from my own chambers and the reassurance that I can speak to her about any issues I have without feeling like I am being a burden.’ EW: new tenant

‘The mentoring scheme is incredibly important because, since another member of the Bar has indicated a willingness to act as a mentor and is assigned to you, one instantly feels less guilty (for want of a better word) about bothering that person and taking time away from their working day. Coupled with that is the benefit of enjoying a relationship with a barrister outside your own chambers, thereby avoiding the need to “sugar coat” the situation and save face in front of colleagues.’ LA: mother of 2 pre-school children

‘[The scheme] provides women with an easily accessible resource for guidance and advice, but also promotes a new way of thinking about women’s roles at the Bar.’ MK junior tenant

‘Being a woman at the Bar presents a unique set of challenges, and having access to a more experienced female member of the Bar for advice, who has undoubtedly encountered the same challenges as you, is an invaluable resource. Seeking out this advice alone can be difficult without knowing where to look or having guidance as to how to go about it; there can still be a stigma attached to raising concerns about gender inequality and individuals are often, understandably, reluctant to do so.’ AJ: junior tenant

‘I feel like it will keep me motivated about returning to practice after maternity leave’ JL: mother of 2

‘The scheme has given me the opportunity to speak to [my mentor] about issues affecting women at the Bar in a relaxed and informal environment, away from my own Chambers and the reassurance that I can speak to her about any issues I have without feeling like I am being a burden!’ EW: new tenant

‘The mentoring scheme is incredibly important because, since another member of the Bar has indicated a willingness to act as a mentor and is assigned to you, one instantly feels less guilty (for want of a better word) about bothering that person and taking time away from their working day. Coupled with that is the benefit of enjoying a relationship with a barrister outside your own chambers, thereby avoiding the need to ‘sugar coat’ the situation and save face in front of colleagues.’ LA: mother of 2 pre-school children

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Kate Brunner QC

Kate set up the Western Circuit Women’s Forum with other Circuiteers in 2015, to improve the retention and advancement of women on Circuit. She is a barrister at Albion Chambers in Bristol, practising in crime, fraud and regulatory law.