Motherhood and the Bar

Equal numbers of men and women may well be called to the Bar, but the female brain drain continues. Catherine Baksi talks to mothers at the Bar about the practical challenges they face.

It is less than a hundred years since women have been permitted to practise at the Bar, following the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919. Until 1990, some chambers still operated a men only policy. Despite this, the advancement of women at the Bar, or “Portia’s progress” as some commentators have called it, has been steady. Men and women are now coming to the Bar in roughly equal numbers, but more than twice as many women as men leave independent practice between six and 10 years’ call. According to Bar Council exit surveys, this is largely due to childcare issues. The long hours, unpredictable nature of the job and often precarious financial situation for those at the self-employed Bar make it difficult to juggle with family life.


The challenges faced differ depending on what type of barrister you are. Kaly Kaul, criminal defence specialist of 25 years’ call at 2 Dyers Building and vice president of the Association of Women Barristers, says the problems for criminal practitioners are caused by the amount of preparation that has to be done in the evenings and weekends as well as the time spent travelling or being away from home. An anonymous commercial barrister of 10 years’ call says in her field the issues relate to the amount of time you are expected to be in chambers. “You can come up against the magic circle requirement to be in chambers and available 24/7.”

As Kaul notes: “Whatever is going on with work you have to look after the children and the challenge is to make sure everything gets done.” Jane McNeill QC, an employment barrister at Old Square Chambers and mother of two, comments: “Both are roller coaster rides, and to successfully combine them it’s essential to have strong support networks, which must include excellent childcare that you feel confident with.” Some women opt for a nanny, but this may only be an option for the highly paid, and out of reach for many, particularly those at the Criminal Bar. Alternatively, there are au pairs, crèches, nurseries and family members. “It’s a huge benefit to have a partner who can help out,” she adds.

Returning from leave

“In addition it’s important to have a forward-looking and Bar Council compliant maternity policy, and a culture led by the head of chambers and including the clerks’ room of supporting women on their return,” says the commercial barrister. McNeill agrees: “It’s vital to have clerks who value your contribution to chambers and run your diary sympathetically, as well supportive colleagues.” Both make the point that chambers invest in women through pupillage and from a business perspective it makes sense to retain them.

Apart from the everyday challenges of juggling work and family, our anonymous barrister says the biggest challenge for her was returning after maternity leave. “Your aged debt keeps you going financially while you’re on maternity leave, but by the time you return it’s nil. And that’s the time you’ll have to find nanny’s fees, and your financial anxiety can be exacerbated if cases don’t come in quickly,” she explains.

“When your child is little, the pull to be at home is strong and all the factors together make it very stressful,” she says. It can, she adds, be isolating when you first return, as chambers socialising takes a back seat and you can feel a bit out of the loop. (See “Managing Career Breaks”, p 23, this issue.)

Making it work

She suggests the practice of devilling, whereby junior barristers undertake paid work on behalf of a more senior barrister, could play a part in easing this time, both from a social and financial perspective. “You’ll be getting work and therefore money coming in and you’ll have some social interaction when you’re at your most vulnerable.”

McNeill offers a few more words of advice: “There are lots of templates for making it work; the most important thing is to decide what arrangement works for you and your family.” She points out that a career at the independent Bar does give an element of flexibility, which means you are able to go off to sports day and no one will either notice or complain. But, she says, there will inevitably be times when you miss important events in your children’s lives, and other things will happen that will cause you guilt. “These things are painful at the time, but children can be very forgiving.”

“My children are now 14 and 16 and will joke that for all their important events, I’ve been in Leeds, but ultimately it has in no way damaged my relationship with them.” Barristers by nature tend to be people who set themselves high standards and here she tells mothers to go easy on themselves: “Don’t aspire to unrealistically high standards in all areas of your life and appreciate that things might not always run perfectly.”

If being a barrister is hard enough with a supportive partner, how much harder is it doing it as a single mother?” Kaul answers that: “It’s hard and not without cost. I went through a period of not going to bed at all on Tuesdays and Thursdays to get my work done. It worked for a while, but then I got pleurisy.” She takes off only two weekends a year and reveals that when her children were very little she coped by taking them to the crèche at her local supermarket in the evenings while she did her paperwork in the café. “Safeway saved me,” she recalls.

Her Honour Judge Hindley QC, secretary of the Association of Women Judges, was called in 1971, and had a son during her time in practice. The challenges faced by women today, she says, are the same as she dealt with, but she says things were harder then as there were no equal opportunity policies or protocols. “In those days if you were interviewed you’d be asked if you were married and whether you had or were expecting to start a family, which would be a factor in deciding whether you got the tenancy,” she adds. Being a judge can have advantages for women as it offers fairly fixed hours and a routine pattern of sitting, plus the opportunity to sit part time. But the downside is that you lose the flexibility of the self-employed Bar, she adds.

The experience of these redoubtable women show the Bar is a viable option to combine with family life if you have the energy, determination and support. And as McNeill concludes: “The gains more than outweigh the cost. If you can have a successful career and a family that functions reasonably well, I don’t think you can ask for much more.”

In the next issue, Maternity and the Bar—the evolution of chambers’ maternity leave policies.

The crèche campaign

An admirable campaign to set up a nursery in or near one of the Inns of Court has been launched by a group of barristers from 40 sets, including 39 Essex Street, 18 Red Lion Court, Devereux Court Chambers and One Essex Court. They have established an unincorporated association—the Bar Nursery Association (BNA)—backed by patrons Baroness Hale, Lord Walker, Lady Justice Arden, Sir Igor Judge, Mrs Justice Laura Cox and Edwin Glasgow QC.

Kate Grange, at 39 Essex Street, says: “We believe it could be a real career saver for a significant number of women trying to juggle independent practice at the Bar with the day-to-day demands of caring for small children and babies.”

Jess Connors, also at 39 Essex Street, explains the BNA’s progress. “We have received an overwhelmingly positive response to our web-based survey of potential users, to which we had more than 420 responses. Ninety eight per cent of respondents thought it a good idea. The survey demonstrates that there is a real demand for a 40-place nursery in the Inns of Court or nearby, offering care for children aged 0–5 years between 7am and 7pm weekdays.”

“Places at the Bar Nursery could be offered in a number of different ways. Some of the larger chambers might hold one or two places for the joint use of their members and staff as and when required. Other places might be taken on a full- or part-time basis by individual barristers directly, and any excess capacity could be available for emergency cover.”

The BNA’s proposals have received the support of the Bar Council, and the BNA will be presenting its proposals to the Inns over the coming months. It also plans to invite central London chambers to sign up to become Founder Chambers, and is undertaking a further survey to find out more accurately what the level of demand for the nursery would be, based on the BNA’s detailed proposals. This can be found at http://snipurl.com/2b4no.

Bar Council support

Despite the consensus among the contributors that there is nothing much the Bar Council can do to resolve the challenges, it has put in place measures to try to assist and, says Ingrid Simler, chairman of the Bar Council’s Equality and Diversity Committee: “I think the Bar’s an easier place for women to combine a career with a family than it used to be.” Aside from the requirement for chambers to have an equal opportunities policy and officer, she says, most sets provide rent-free periods for maternity leave and rent holidays, and the Bar Council offers refunds on subscriptions. In addition, every year the Bar Council runs a returners course to help those coming back from maternity leave (see p 23, this issue).

 

 

 

 

Category: 
Tags: