Bar earnings gap a “serious cultural and structural problem”

Inns: Collective challenge for the Bar

The earnings gap between male and female barristers is not explained by caring responsibilities, choice of practice area, or amount of legally aided work, new research by the Bar Council has found.

“This is a serious structural and cultural problem and presents a collective challenge for the Bar to reconsider the ways in which we speak about money, work/life balance, choice, and what success looks like,” it said.

As first highlighted in a Bar Council report last November, the overall median earnings gap for those with up to three years of post-qualification experience (PQE) was over 13% in 2022, rising to a peak of 31% for those with 11-15 years.

It found in every call band and every area of practice, men’s median gross earnings were higher than women’s.

Across all practice areas, the median gap of over 13% rose to 31% for those with 11-15 years of PQE before “narrowing gradually back” to 12% for experienced juniors with over 26 years of PQE. Female silks’ median earnings were 29% lower than men.

For family work, the only area where there are more female barristers than men, the initial gap 4% gap rose to a peak 22% for those with 4-10 years of PQE. The earnings gap for family silks, at 4%, was far smaller than other practice areas.

In the higher-earning practice areas of personal injury and commercial & Chancery, men’s gross earnings outstripped women’s “significantly”, despite more women than ever practising in those areas.

Barristers have been asked to state their precise gross fee income since 2021 and gross earnings are seen as a useful proxy for the wider issue of how work is distributed around the Bar.

The report on new practitioner earning differentials builds on this research and was combined with interviews with senior staff at 15 medium/large sets of chambers.

The analysis showed that while newly qualified barristers with caring responsibilities had a wider earnings gap than average (22%), it was only six percentage points more than those who declared they had no caring responsibilities.

Further, the picture across all levels of call suggested that caring responsibilities were not “the sole or even a primary” factor.

When it came to legal aid, there was only one category where female barristers had higher earnings – those whose legal aid work accounted for 26-50% of their earnings.

“So, we cannot look to a gendered reliance on legal aid to explain away the persistent gap in earnings between men and women”.

Among its recommendations, the report said chambers should be “mindful” of who was identified as a ‘star’ performer, giving them access to ‘unicorn cases’ which were lucrative, as well as being interesting and potentially career-defining.

“It was notable in interviews that when ‘stars’ were discussed the majority were men.”

Other recommendations included ensuring clerks and chambers staff collected and analysed earnings data and discussed it with members. Patterns found should be discussed “at management committee level”, which may require a culture shift in chambers to improve transparency.

Practice reviews should be offered to barristers, backed with earnings data, to offer them chances of increasing earnings and internal time monitoring could be used to help those who were under-billing.

The Bar Council said the interviews suggested “a generational shift around wellbeing and managing work/life balance” – particularly among women – that led to more pushback against weekend working, “being less subservient to seniors, and being firmer about blocking out time in their diaries during the week”.

While this was “symptomatic of a changing culture in the workplace”, it may also be creating tensions within chambers.

“Clerks want to support barristers, but they also need to get the work done. This is particularly stark where demand exceeds supply e.g. currently in crime.”

Chambers had different approach on managing led work. While some did “absolutely no monitoring or directing at all”, others handled it more carefully, “giving opportunities to those returning from a career break, or ensuring that all new tenants are given equal opportunities”.

It could also mean “difficult conversations” with seniors who always used the same juniors.

The report concluded: “The recommendations… are a starting point for discussion about how to consider redressing the balance, not so that everyone earns the same – which is neither possible nor desirable – but so that everyone is supported in developing the practice they want.

“The real solutions, though, will need to come at a local level where barristers and chambers staff meet to talk about the ways they wish to work.

“All the evidence here suggests that positive and evidence-based conversations need to happen right from the start of a barrister’s career to support the development of a thriving practice.”

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