Law firms need to work on giving female barristers equal “crack of the whip” on instructions

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2 September 2015

Patricia Robertson

Robertson: don’t assume women aren’t “big hitters”

Male solicitors must be alert to their “unconscious assumptions” and ensure female barristers get an “equal crack of the whip in winning work on their merits”, the vice-chair of the Bar Standards Board (BSB) has said.

Drawing an analogy with research that shows job interviewers tend to hire people like themselves, Patricia Robertson QC said decisions as to which barrister to instruct were “typically made by the senior ranks of law firms, and the vast majority of those in the senior ranks are white and male”.

She went on: “When they phone up asking for a big hitter for their trial, what mental image will they have in mind? Law firms are doing lots of good work to address the issues around career progression in their own ranks. Initiatives like the Law Society diversity charter are greatly to be welcomed.

“But perhaps we could together extend that work to ensure that those instructing the Bar are alert to their own unconscious assumptions and don’t fall into the trap of assuming that the little five-foot blonde woman barrister isn’t the big hitter they are after. She may be the next Jonathan Sumption.”

In a speech earlier in the summer on widening participation in the legal professions, Ms Robertson said that, under its code of conduct, the BSB required chambers to monitor work allocation among barristers.

“I did that job for seven years for my chambers. I developed very detailed reports which analysed the data, cohort by cohort, anonymised by gender and ethnicity.

“I analysed not just the allocation by the clerks of work that came in unallocated but also the relative success of individuals in winning work that came to them by name.

“The information these reports produced were hugely useful in creating a picture of what positive career progression should look like and spotting when someone appeared to be out of kilter.

“My impression, but I would be the first to accept mine was far too small a sample to generalise from, was that women were finding it harder to progress to winning work in their own name.”

Ms Robertson said there was an earnings gap by gender in society at large, mirrored at the Bar, which opened up early, “starting even before women have children” and made it harder for them to afford the right kind of child care.

She said that women tended to “beat themselves up more” over their failures and advised female barristers to find their own mentors, rather than waiting for a mentoring scheme to be set up.

“Above all, find the right life partner. You may think this non-PC, but I am deadly serious. You need a supportive partner with whom you can negotiate. If you do have a family then practically every day will involve a negotiation over who is doing what. There needs to be give and take in that.

“I know one couple, both at the Bar and with young kids, doing the kind of commercial work that produces very long, heavy trials, who discuss and negotiate who gets to say yes to the next big trial.

“He’s taken silk. Now she’s in the run-up and he recognises that she needs the court exposure more than he does right now, so she takes priority. It takes real grown-ups to know when to step back and when to step forward in that sort of negotiation, and it takes real love.

“So there you have it, all you need is love!”

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