For the first time ever, four of the six Leaders of Circuit in England and Wales are women: Christine Agnew QC (South-Eastern Circuit), Kate Brunner QC (Western Circuit), Michelle Heeley QC (Midland Circuit) and Lisa Roberts QC (Northern Circuit).

And what a time to be in the leadership role: a global pandemic, remote advocacy, concerns about the retention of women at the Bar and calls for a more diverse profession.

I meet the Fab Four over Zoom and a wide-ranging discussion about their role follows; one that Lisa Roberts memorably describes as ‘a mish-mash of chief exec/ambassador/personal care giver/after-dinner speaker/shop steward/accountant/historian and diplomat’!

Biggest challenges 

One challenge none of them could have foreseen is the impact of COVID-19 on the profession. 

‘The pastoral role during the pandemic became central,’ says Roberts. ‘There are 1,500 people on our Circuit and I enjoy writing. So, I wrote to them. Daily emails, sometimes, on how to manage remote hearings, which courts were safe, the hardship fund we had set up to help colleagues facing difficulties. One of my children was going through A-Levels, so I understood about possible domestic pressures as well professional ones. I used to bake cakes on Fridays and share the photographs. I made myself available and people responded. You couldn’t stand on ceremony. It was a time to break down barriers and work together. No one balked at my informal approach.’

‘The pandemic was exhausting,’ admits Brunner. ‘I was spending five hours a day on Circuit work alongside my practice and family. There were constant Zoom meetings, calls, emails. But we became a very cohesive group through it. All the Leaders came together to establish a national response. We were dealing with the Bar Council, the judiciary, heads of chambers, funding organisations, politicians. The breadth of what we were dealing with was huge.’

The pandemic exaggerated the usual challenges of being Circuit Leader. ‘I tried to speak to as many people as possible; court staff, practitioners, judges, so I could get a feel for what the issues were,’ says Agnew. ‘Circuit is whatever you want it to be. Your role as Circuit Leader, to some extent, is also what you want it to be.’

Remote hearings brought problems but Heeley also sees the positives. ‘CVP [cloud video platform] has allowed women, particularly, to be in several places at once, especially if they have caring responsibilities. There’s definitely a long-term place for remote hearings for sentences or directions hearings. Of course, if there’s a risk of custody, the advocate should be with the client. But, otherwise, not having to travel means that counsel can do two cases in a day which is important for continuity.’

More generally, the leaders acknowledge the huge pressures on practitioners at present; particularly in criminal and family law.

‘There’s a 24/7 culture where we’re expected to be at the end of an email in the evenings and at weekends that cannot continue,’ says Heeley.

‘Practitioners are tired. Morale is low,’ adds Agnew. ‘Court listing can be aggressive. As leader, I have to address issues like this. Judges and the Bar need to be kinder to each other. Kindness doesn’t detract from the adversarial system; it helps it along. Emails are out of control. There should be no expectation of a reply after 6pm or before 8:30am. Similarly, counsel can’t conjure up a bundle over the lunch break or a skeleton argument overnight.’

The role of Circuit Leader includes liaising with judges which can, sometimes, be a delicate operation.

‘Sometimes junior members of the Circuit need to challenge a judge but don’t feel they can do it,’ explains Agnew. ‘My role, then, is to be there for them and take their issue to the judge. It might be a bullying complaint, or it might be a mother made to sit late, long after her childminder has gone, who didn’t feel able to tell the judge.’

Lead like a woman

I ask if they feel they bring any particular skills as women to the job. All say it is difficult to distinguish skills that are due to personality rather than sex. Brunner is loathe to see any trait she brings to the role as one particular to women. However, all acknowledge that certain life experiences as women can come into play in the role. For example, being organised, in order to efficiently deal with the slew of responsibilities being Circuit Leader brings, is a key skill. Demands on their time come from every corner of the Circuit and it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number. Therefore, dealing with them in a steady, methodical way is crucial.

Raising children and having care responsibilities where tasks have to be undertaken, often at short notice and alongside other commitments, therefore, can be a solid foundation for meeting the demands of being leader.

Heeley says: ‘As a mother you often have to look at resolving problems because it has to be done before you can do anything else.’

Roberts agrees: ‘I took time out for children and had to become very organised. As women, we have that ability to manage calmly under pressure because that’s really tested when you have children. You just roll up your sleeves and speak to anyone and everyone to find a common and practical solution.’

Similarly, they all recognise that the experiences they have had as women barristers gives them the practical insight to look into areas where the profession may be failing its members, particularly women. They didn’t see this as a deliberate failing on the part of male colleagues, simply one based on experiences.

Heeley notes that a male judge may not always appreciate the responsibilities women lawyers have for childcare or looking after elderly parents. ‘I think women are more inclined to look at understanding the impact of decisions on people. We think about how people feel about a decision we’ve made because decisions have an emotional impact as well as the practical one,’ she says.

‘When I get sent a specific problem, I look at the most constructive ways to resolve it. Sometimes the best thing I can do is to just listen. Is that a female trait? I don’t know. It’s an important one, anyway,’ adds Agnew.

Role models?

All four agree on the importance of having women in leadership roles.

‘It’s absolutely fantastic,’ says Agnew. ‘It gives young women a clear message to put themselves forward for leadership roles. It says, we have children and families, we have careers, we juggle things and we can do it all. It’s good for young men to see as well. It tells them we did it against the odds.’

Brunner is happy to accept she’s seen as a role model. ‘At Grand Night a young woman said to me, “I’ve never heard a woman speak at a big event like this.” That meant a lot to me.’

This visibility, as female leaders, all agree, is enormously important. It can and does have an impact on both men as well as other women. 

‘It’s massively important to have that visibility,’ says Heeley. ‘We currently have a retention issue with women barristers. Some feel women can’t progress in the profession and we are there, then, as women who stuck at it. I’m there to show other women that it’s possible to be a barrister doing criminal law, to be a mother and also to be in a leadership role.’

‘It’s hugely significant,’ agrees Roberts. ‘When I became leader in January 2020 we had two female Leaders. That was for the first time. I hoped there might be parity in 2021 but groundbreakingly, we’re now the majority! It’s to be celebrated but with the hope that one day it will no longer be a thing and parity will be the norm.’

The highs

Reflecting on the best part of the job so far, for Roberts it all comes back to the Circuiteers. Her highs include being able attend an in-person mess, or ‘seeing 140 friends,’ as she describes it. Lows have included saying goodbye to Circuiteers either because they left the Bar or more finally because she’s attended their funerals.

Agnew agrees. ‘Seeing people at the summer party this year was a high point. It was about how great the Bar is, how supportive. There was so much laughter.’ On the downside, she refers, again, to the low morale. 

Heeley particularly enjoys making after-dinner speeches. ‘I’ve got a pretty dry sense of humour, so I tend to be self-deprecating and point out that I’m short and from Erdington but here I am! In my first month I went from a dinner at the Law Society on my first day in the job to an event at the House of Lords. I couldn’t believe I was moving in such circles. I really appreciate it all.’

For Brunner, a highpoint was how so many Circuiteers came together during the pandemic to come up with ideas and resources to help people get through the experience. ‘For example, we appointed a liaison barrister for each criminal and family court as well as the employment tribunal. Their role was to liaise with the resident judge about local issues that were often changing daily. That coming together was just incredible to be part of.’

Helping others

All four practise, primarily but not exclusively, criminal law, although Brunner also ventures regularly into civil regulatory work and family law.

All are acutely aware of how few female criminal silks there are on each Circuit. When Brunner took silk, she was the only female criminal barrister at that rank on the Circuit. ‘Previous female silks were now on the bench. It was shocking I was the only one on such a large Circuit.’

On Heeley’s Circuit there are five female criminal silks. ‘Often, it’s the uncertainty of how a criminal practice will sit with family life. Many women get to 12-15 years’ call and decide to quit.’

They also note that fewer young people are coming into crime. ‘There’s a huge pressure on senior junior women to do serious sexual offences cases,’ says Roberts. ‘There’s a surfeit of work in that area but it’s pressurised, frontloaded work, not remunerated well or not at all if a trial doesn’t go ahead. People feel undervalued even though they love the cut and thrust of a criminal trial.’

Again, visibility helps. Agnew says, ‘If I can inspire a pupil or the next generation that’s got to be positive.’

Since only silks can become Circuit Leader, all aim to increase the number of female silks so there will be a larger pool from which to select our future leaders.