In early 2019 I received an email from a colleague in chambers – Mary Prior QC – asking me to consider founding an association to support all women who practise in family law. She told me that the criminal profession had done so with great success. I quickly Googled ‘Women in Criminal Law’ and was impressed to see what that association had achieved, and its focus to bring together all women who practise in criminal law across the country. So I took a deep breath, made some calls, and very quickly had four amazing women on board, all willing to help launch this association: Mrs Justice Judd, Vanessa Meachin QC, Katie Rayden and Simone McGrath (who is the Vice Chair of Women in Family Law (WIFL)).
So: why do we need another association when there are arguably so many other support groups already in place? And why the focus on women?
In 2019 we celebrated the achievements of women over the past 100 years of women in law. The achievements have been remarkable, yet women still fail to attain the sort of recognition and success that their male counterparts seem so effortlessly to attain. Why do we continue to struggle to see women sitting at higher levels of the judiciary? Female silks are still such a low percentage of the yearly numbers and women of colour are vastly under-represented in senior roles throughout our profession. 2020 and the next 100 years must set about to change this.
WIFL aims to create a platform across the profession to unify all who practise in family law, from High Court judges to paralegals. Our founding board celebrates who we want to be, and is comprised of senior and junior women from both the Bar and solicitors in practice; women of colour, women who have faced adversity, women who have battled mental health issues, and women who have achieved success through more unusual paths.
We recognise that there already exist many supportive and nurturing groups, the Family Law Bar Association (of which I am proud to be Vice Chair), the Bar Wellbeing Group led by Vicki Wilson of the Family Bar, the Association of Lawyers for Children and Resolution to name but a few; and WIFL aims to unite and collaborate, to create an umbrella association under which our members can flourish and share histories and futures. We will work with the other groups and associations, signpost our members to them and encourage active participation and engagement. A core component will be cross-professional support and guidance so that, through us, newly qualified solicitors from Carlisle to Bournemouth can get to know each other and support one another. Our aim is to create a national mentoring scheme, taking guidance and learning from the impressive groups already in existence and sharing what works and what does not. I am delighted to share that a number of High Court judges and Senior Circuit judges have pledged their support to our mentoring scheme, along with women in senior roles across chambers and law firms.
The forum will provide a platform to challenge bias, to support those who feel financially excluded from the profession, and to develop networks of support in the courtroom, office and beyond.
Through focus on wellbeing, education and inclusion this forum seeks to broaden the diversity of our profession and provide internal mentoring, advice and guidance. Further, we will create challenges from within to debate and consider, understanding that it is vital that we question the narrow focus of the past and reframe the future.
Long-term aims include the promotion of women from all backgrounds to senior roles and to fund support to those less able to access the profession. It is vital that we tackle the lack of diversity in senior roles and create links and networks of support across the profession through mentoring schemes and access to more senior members who can share knowledge and provide advice. We will celebrate those who have attained success in their sphere and, with them, work hard to further the progressive change that is necessary. There will be a very clear emphasis on wellbeing and support to those with mental health issues, working with others such as Mind, the Bar Wellbeing Group and drawing on lived experiences to help those in crisis. We will also ensure that women with disabilities feel able to step into roles they previously felt closed to them and will be a platform for support to them.
Women constantly seem to talk about juggling; whether it is work and children, or work and parents, coming back to the profession after having a child, or managing children or parents with medical needs and/or disabilities. These people must feel supported in our profession and we must get better at recognising that the old approach to work/life balance needs to change. We hope ‘Women in Family Law’ can advocate loudly for the profession, in a way that helps everyone, including our male colleagues: husbands, fathers, partners, clerks, sons and friends.
Baroness Hale and Lady Justice King have agreed to support this initiative and we are delighted to have two such fabulous role models standing with us as we throw open our doors. The launch party is taking place on Friday 13 March 2020 at Gray’s Inn, with an event to follow in the north of the country in June.
Those interested in joining should please email firstname.lastname@example.org and anyone interested in offering mentoring support should please email email@example.com.