It has never been a more challenging time to be a working parent. Recent Office for National Statistics figures have laid this problem bare – 43,000 women and 36,000 men dropped out of the workforce in the last year to look after family, a 3% rise for women and a 15% increase for men compared to the previous year. The high price of childcare seems to be the primary cause of this drop-off, as well as a desire for more flexibility at work that is still not being met by many employers post-pandemic.

In the legal sector, there has been an increasing focus on supporting working parents through the dual lenses of wellbeing and diversity & inclusion but again, recent figures have shown that more needs to be done. Statistics from The Next 100 Years project has found 84% of UK mothers working in the law still find it difficult to balance working life with the demands of being a mother, with half of those surveyed believing they are treated differently at work to men with children.

At the Bar, recent figures from the Bar Council have revealed that female barristers earned nearly 35% less than their male counterparts on average in the past year.* Mark Fenhalls KC, 2022 Chair of the Bar stated that ‘support for new barristers and those returning to the Bar’ was essential in closing this pay gap. But how do we support parents at the Bar?

This has always been a difficult issue. The self-employed model has, historically, taken responsibility away from chambers to provide support for those wanting to take time off. A barrister was expected to simply plan for a period of parental leave and to manage that themselves, with little to no support. This approach is changing. Chambers are increasingly recognising the value of supporting working parents and retaining tenants over the long term.

The twin pressures of a career at the Bar and parenting can at times be overwhelming. The first step for a chambers is to recognise this and to remove any stigma around members taking time out to have and bring up children. Parents sometimes cannot win. They come back ‘too early’ after having a baby, or ‘too late’ and accused of ‘neglecting their careers’. Eyebrows have been raised either way. In reality, of course, both choices are entirely valid and no matter what a new parent chooses to do regarding their leave, this decision should be supported.

Clear communication is essential. In the Bar Council’s advice pack, Family Career Breaks, it states:

Barristers should be encouraged to say what they want and know what chambers are expecting of them – it is important to get clarity on this as it is all too easy for a barrister to feel pestered or ignored if expectations between the barrister and chambers do not match up. It is good to talk.’

Recognising pressure points, such as the return to work and getting back up to speed after a period of leave can also be helpful in easing the transition for working parents. Some new parents may want to be left well-alone, others may prefer more regular contact and updates, both from chambers and solicitors. Making sure keeping-in-touch days are offered and the frequency of contact is discussed is important too. The Bar Council advises barristers to nominate a ‘chambers’ buddy’ to keep them informed about what is going on during any absence and this can be a helpful way to ensure the barrister isn’t excluded from any events and they are kept up-to-date with any management changes or other important issues.

Mentoring and examples of KCs and judges speaking about their juggling acts when it comes to being a working parent is also really helpful. The Bar Council’s Maternity Mentoring Scheme enables new parents to speak to those who have been through the whole process and returned to work. One mentee said:

My mentor was a huge source of support and guidance. To have had access to such an experienced and successful practitioner, with whom I could openly and frankly discuss the challenges of combining a demanding practice with a young family, was a real benefit. I cannot overstate how useful it was. I would highly recommend the Bar Council Maternity Mentoring Scheme .’

Unfortunately, there are not as many practical policies which can be implemented by chambers to support new parents when compared to law firms and other businesses. However, that certainly does not mean that chambers’ hands are tied. For example, at 4PB we have recently introduced a new policy: our barristers are now entitled to a two-year rent-free period after having a child. This supports the parent during their period of leave, for up to 12 months, and then a further 12 months’ rent-free (subject to an earnings cap, which will generally only be exceeded if the parent comes back after a short period and works full time). We also wanted to be able to support secondary caregivers (those parents who are not taking maternity leave) by offering up to four months’ rent-free (up to three months’ leave, followed by one month rent free on return).

For our chambers it was an easy decision to implement this policy – we wanted to make it clear we supported our working parents, are committed to retaining our tenants and helping them to develop their careers. From a cost benefit analysis, implementing a policy like this has long-term benefits for a relatively small cost. The cap we decided on for the 12 month period is designed to support parents with the cost of childcare, which we appreciate can be significant, particularly in London.

There is now a much brighter spotlight being shone on the struggles facing modern working parents. Barristers should not be left in the dark just because the majority of us are self-employed. There are policies that chambers and the profession more broadly can embrace to make this life transition easier. Being a barrister and a parent will continue to be challenging and rewarding in equal measure. There is no reason why the two cannot go hand in hand. 

Further information
* Barrister earnings by by sex and practice area - 2022 update, Bar Council, October 2022 (based on anon income data from self-employed barristers shared by Bar Mutual Indemnity Fund).
Bar Council’s advice pack Family Career Breaks.
Bar Council’s Maternity Mentoring Scheme.