What makes a specialist Bar leader? And what are the chances that the female silk stepping down after two years as Chair of the Family Law Bar Association and the female silk stepping up in September to be Chair of the Criminal Bar Association should be friends in the same set? With International Women’s Day this month, I find some time in Hannah and Mary’s busy schedules to discover what makes them tick, what drew them to the Bar, what they have achieved/hope to achieve as leaders of these huge specialist Bar associations, and what their advice would be to their younger selves and others who aspire to follow in their footsteps.

Paths to the Bar

Interestingly, for two successful silks who one might assume have planned their careers with laser-sharp accuracy, it is a matter of happenstance that both Hannah and Mary ended up at the Bar.

For Hannah, after reading English and Spanish at Middlesex University, a PhD beckoned, comprising, in its preparation, travel through the US and Central America, researching the Truman era. However, finding herself a young, single mother, this ceased to be practicable: ‘So I just made the decision, not feeling that academia was right for me, that I would become a barrister instead.’

A well-researched and considered change of plan? Seemingly not: ‘I’d always liked the law. I was a real fan of LA Law, and the approach to the law and advocacy. I loved all the flair and drama of it.’ Hannah undertook the law conversion course over two years, starting when her baby daughter was nine months old. Having spent a deal of time clerking for a North London family law solicitor to make ends meet, Hannah figured that a family law pupillage might be easier to find; and it was.

Mary grew up the youngest of five in a pit village in Staffordshire. Tragedy hit when her father found himself unable to work after he was badly injured in an accident (in which others died) in the coalmine. As the smallest child, and so the ‘least likely to be shouted at’, it was Mary’s regular task to answer the door to the man from The Provident and tell him that there would be no repayment that week.

She found her way to the study of law for no other reason than that she had to move school at a point which disrupted her A-level years, and discovered that law was one of only few courses at her new school which could be undertaken in the single year remaining to her. Mary then had to make her own way, rather than rely on family connections: ‘I can trace my family’s history back to about 1732, and it’s only either “coal miner” or “daughter of coal miner” on both sides!’

Early years at the Bar

After a law degree at The Chelmer Institute, a college of secondary education, Mary joined the Crown Prosecution Service, during which time her first, second and third children were born. However, ‘the CPS had too many staff at that time, and they were offering voluntary redundancy, which I took’. Thus, ‘with a two-year-old, a one-year-old, and a baby, I applied to every set of chambers that I could find’. While, initially, ‘nobody wanted me’, Mary found a place in a chambers in Wolverhampton. In 2012, she joined The 36 Group, after a stint at No. 5 in Birmingham, along the way specialising in criminal law, having begun her post-CPS career at the Bar with ‘a diary full of things like Chancery, family law, immigration – you name it’.

Sons number four and five were born in 1999 and 2002. How did Mary cope with the competing rigours of parenting a brood of young children and carving out a successful career at the Bar? ‘I think the answer to that, Will, is badly! I would go to bed at midnight, and I got up at 4 am and I worked from 4 am until 7.30 am on paperwork. Then I got the children up, took them to school or nursery. I had conferences at lunchtime, and then picked them up from nursery, did all the stuff that they needed, put them to bed somewhere between 6 and 8 pm, depending. And then I started work again until midnight.’

Hannah’s early years at the Bar were a little less frantic. Pupillage at One Garden Court as a single mum of a three-year-old took some navigating, but it was easier than it might have been because of the ‘environment of understanding’ engendered in large part by the Heads, Alison Ball QC and Eleanor Platt QC, who ran a progressive and family-friendly chambers. The lesson Hannah quickly learnt was not to be afraid to ask for flexibility, noting: ‘Twenty years ago, a lot of people didn’t ask; many people still don’t.’

Advice to the next generation

The advice the now older and wiser Mary would give her younger self is, ‘Don’t try so hard – say no occasionally.’ Would that have held her back or slowed her down? ‘You can still get to the same place – probably quicker, because you’re not so tired!’

Hannah’s advice to the generation coming up was similar: ‘Speak up and make sure you have a good work-life balance. The Bar is not the “be-all and end-all” and you should be able to have time for yourself.’ She cautioned against allowing oneself to be cajoled into working outside acceptable hours.

Mary’s advice to a young woman thinking now of a career at the self-employed Bar was characteristically upbeat: ‘It’s a brilliant, amazing profession. And it’s the best in the world for a woman because you’re never judged on your looks: if you get older, that’s a good thing and you’re respected – unlike almost any other job for women – and whatever your background and circumstances, wherever you began in life, provided you have the skills, a desire for learning and expertise, you are accepted. No-one really asks me what university I went to, or what grades I got, or anything like that. They simply deal with you as their opponent. It’s a very encouraging, very enabling profession.’

Achievements – actual or intended

Hannah has completed her two full years at the helm of the FLBA. As her term ended, she felt she was only just getting started, although this was belied by her complete exhaustion. She hopes she has helped to engender greater inclusivity within the FLBA, reaching out to younger members and beyond the London bubble; and she is proud of her work – with Darren Howe KC – in introducing the Respectful Working Policy: ‘We made it clear that the FLBA would not condone or sanction inappropriate behaviour from anybody, whether a member of the Bar or the Judiciary.’ The fee review she introduced has not yet been completed, but she considers it to be hugely important and knows that her successor, James Roberts KC, will see it through.

What does Mary most hope to achieve in her year in the CBA driving seat? ‘I would like the rest of our profession, other stakeholders in the criminal justice system and the public to respect and value the work that criminal practitioners do.’

Remaining challenges

Both Hannah and Mary flag up two ongoing issues facing both the Family and the Criminal Bar. The first is the gender pay gap: disappointingly pervasive and enduring. The second is the problem of recruitment and retention: if we cannot offer and deliver decent pay and a sustainable personal life, we will not attract and keep the best. And both worry that, as the creaking family and criminal justice systems address the post-COVID backlogs with ever-dwindling funding, the pandemic lessons are being forgotten and practitioners are again feeling forced into unsustainable working practices.

Camaraderie and support

The clearest theme coming from the two was the fact, and overwhelming importance, of the camaraderie of the Bar. Both were at pains to acknowledge the many friends who have advised, counselled and encouraged them through their careers. Mary cited HHJ Rosa Dean and HHJ Adrienne Lucking KC, both now Circuit Judges, as fine mentors as well as firm friends. She fondly remembers when, as a new and terrified silk, she was sought out in the robing room at Leicester by two silks whom she hadn’t met, Isabella Forshall KC and Sally Howes KC, who spent the next hour or so encouraging, advising and reassuring her.

Hannah has been lucky to count Sir Andrew McFarlane KC, now President of the Family Division, from when he was a silk and Hannah a ‘baby barrister, many years ago’, as well as Frances Oldham KC, Dame Lucy Theis DBE KC (now High Court judge) and ‘too many others to list’ among those who have provided her with unstinting support over the years.

Both Hannah and Mary separately singled out Jo Delahunty KC for her friendship and support, as well as her amazing work improving diversity within and the accessibility of the profession.

Equally apparent is that both devote huge amounts of their scarce time to giving others this same support. Hannah is the founder and Chair of Women in Family Law (WiFL). Mary has, for many years, run a mock trial scheme for state school pupils in Leicester and Leicestershire. (And she could not suppress a smile of pure pride when she called to mind the many pupils who, because of this project, have come to the Bar, or other professions they learned about through it.)


I wondered what these two super-busy silks do to decompress. Mary is never more relaxed than when walking her dog in her beautiful Derbyshire countryside, and never more invigorated than when supporting the (sometimes victorious) Alfreton Town FC, as she does most weekends.

For Hannah, a healthy mind relies on regular, vigorous exercise: running when possible, or the frightening-sounding ‘Pilates Blitz’. ‘A nice meal with friends and a glass of decent wine’ also rates highly on Hannah’s list.

Similar in many ways, so different in others, I wonder what it says about each of Mary and Hannah, and of their particular views of the world, that their respective fictional legal heroes are Horace Rumpole (Leo McKern) – ‘so real, so funny, yet so compassionate’ – and Laura Kelly (Debra Winger) in Legal Eagles