Taking a Break?

Freya Newbery explains the issues surrounding career breaks for barristers and reports on the recent Bar Council “Managing Career Breaks” seminar.

As part of its commitment to retaining women in self-employed practice, the Bar Council hosted an immensely practical half-day seminar, “Managing Career Breaks”, on 23 October 2009. The seminar provided practical guidance to both barristers beginning a break or planning to return to practice following maternity leave or a career break, and those in chambers—such as equal opportunity officers, clerks and practice managers—responsible for managing career breaks and helping returners to re-build their practices.


The seminar is intended to be an annual event and originated as part of a drive by the Bar Council’s Equality and Diversity Committee (“the Committee”) to support the retention of women barristers in self-employed practice. The Bar’s Exit Survey shows a disproportionate dropout rate of women in self-employed practice compared to men, and that women drop out at an early stage in their careers. The reasons given for leaving in the Exit Survey are predictable: the demands of childcare, inflexibility of self-employed practice, court listing arrangements and low earnings.
 
At the Bar we are all aware of the effect of that exodus because, despite the fact that women have entered the profession in approximately equal numbers to men for nearly 20 years, the profession remains predominantly male across all the years of Call apart from the most junior.

Anecdotally there is plenty of evidence to suggest that women sometimes find their chambers to be an inhospitable environment when they come back after maternity leave and they choose to leave and pursue a different career. At the same time there are many chambers, hopefully most chambers, who are keen to retain their female tenants and to ease their return to practice with support and, where appropriate, flexible working arrangements. After all, these trained and experienced women are a valuable asset and difficult to replace. Both the Bar Standards Board and the Bar Council have made the retention of women in self-employed practice a priority and to that end the Equality and Diversity Code and Maternity Leave Guidelines promote flexible working arrangements, career breaks from chambers, and a minimum of six months’ maternity leave free of chambers’ rent and expenses.

Not all returners are women returning from maternity leave and the Bar Council data shows that other groups, for example some disabled practitioners, need to work flexibly and take career breaks. Further, some barristers choose to take a career break for personal, family, literary or adventurous reasons. Men take parental leave. Barristers write books or go backpacking. Even the Chairman of the Bar has to take a break from normal practice which, presumably, has to be managed by his clerks. Clerks and practice managers are habitually concerned with flexible working in the day-to-day management of the chambers’ diary, for those who sit as Recorders, those who are involved in other trials, those who have conferences fixed at particular times—in fact just about every aspect of a “normal” practice. Whether a barrister is unavailable for a conference at 5.30 pm because of a previously booked conference, a child care commitment, a Bar Council meeting, a holiday, a sitting day miles away from chambers or otherwise makes no difference to the solicitor.

There is of course a need for specific planning around maternity leave (see further www.barcouncil.org.uk/guidance/MaternityPaternityParentalLeavePoliciesThingstothinkabout). However, as long as the attitude of chambers is informed and positive the actual practical management side utilises the same skills from clerks and practice managers that they have honed up around everyone’s practice.

Topics covered

Of the 50 or so people who attended the seminar there were many women concerned with maternity leave, but also others, men and women, who were taking a sabbatical to write or travel or had taken time off because of other caring responsibilities or through illness. Some senior clerks and practice managers were also present.

The keynote speaker, The Hon Mrs Justice Cox DBE, provided thought provoking and positive insights into career progression in the context of family responsibilities.

Talks on the Code of Conduct and the Equality and Diversity Code provided fruitful discussions on, for example, whether flexible working arrangements might sometimes come into conflict with the provisions of the Code of Conduct. This was something the Committee decided to look into again in more detail in 2010.

Speakers from the Judicial Appointments Commission were keen to stress that the various qualities that must be evidenced in applications for judicial appointments can often be demonstrated by something achieved away from practice (perhaps during a career break) such as becoming a school governor etc.

The Barristers Benevolent Association (“BBA”) provided information about the sort of help that may be available to returners with financial problems. The difficulties of funding cannot be underestimated and the BBA can help.

The final section of the seminar took place by way of two panels with questions from the floor. The first panel was made up of many representatives from Specialist Bar Associations (“SBA”) providing information about how their particular SBA can help. There were plenty of rebates available on subscriptions but one of the most useful services was the provision of specialist talks available by videolink or on DVD to avoid attendance at awkward times. The Association of Women Barristers offers mentoring.

The second panel brought together  senior practitioners and Michael Goodridge, Senior Clerk (9 Gough Square), to provide their own experiences and lessons learnt in relation to developing practices and maintaining effective clerking arrangements and —that most elusive of aims—maintaining a work life balance. As Chair of the IBC Training Committee Michael is able to say with authority what clerks and practice managers can and should be doing to help facilitate career breaks and flexible working. Encouragement was given from the barrister members of the panel and relevant stories told, all with the gravitas, grace and humour to be expected from the likes of Anna Worrall QC, Kim Hollis QC and Elizabeth Laing QC.

The Committee had a lot of positive feedback and good cause to feel that the seminar was successful in its aims. By October 2010 there will be a whole new batch of barristers contemplating or coming back from career breaks and so we will run a similar seminar.

Managing career breaks DVD

Readers can obtain a copy of the seminar DVD by emailing Angela Campbell with their contact details. E-mail: ACampbell@BarCouncil.org.uk. The DVD attracts two CPD hours.

Freya Newbery is a barrister at 12 King’s Bench Walk and a Vice Chair of the Bar Council’s Equality and Diversity Committee.

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