The Chancery Bar Association (CBA) has published a charter on fairness in work allocation and earnings which aims to “shift the dial” in a favour of female barristers, who currently earn 39% less than their male colleagues for contentious commercial work.
Nicola Rushton KC, deputy head of Hailsham Chambers, said one of the proposals was for silks to be treated “as clients” when it came to selecting the junior barristers they worked with.
“Who gets the briefs in high-profile cases? Silks often pick people who remind them of what they were like when they were young barristers, and then carry on working with them. The opportunities are not shared out very fairly.”
Ms Rushton said treating silks like clients meant they had to go through the clerks before making decisions on juniors.
The clerks would find out who was available, contact those barristers and enable them to put themselves forward for the work, presenting the silk with a range of options.
Another recommendation in the Charter for Fairness in work allocation, career development, marketing and earnings at the Chancery Bar is ensuring that “any request (by solicitors or counsel) for discounting fees or reducing rates is actively questioned”.
Ms Rushton explained: “Female barristers are more likely to be asked to take cuts in fees and to agree to it. They are less able to hold the line. It’s a confidence thing. It’s about feeling you have the right to bill for the time you’ve put in.”
The KC, former chair of the CBA’s equality and diversity sub-committee, led the development of the charter with the current chair, Yasmin Yasseri of No5 Chambers.
The charter, made up of 12 points for best practice, has been circulated to all the chambers on the CBA’s list.
Ms Rushton said the proposals originated in anecdotal evidence from roundtable meetings that female barristers were not getting the same support in their careers as men.
She said the Chancery Bar gender pay gap of 39% was not the biggest at the Bar, but was still much higher than the national average of 15%.
The charter emerged from a series of meetings with senior clerks and heads of chambers, with the focus on good practice.
“It’s intended to be a practical document, with things that people can really put into practice to make procedures more transparent and less implied.”
The first point calls on chambers to monitor work opportunities and record on management systems “all the members of chambers to whom an opportunity has been offered; all those who were put forward and why the final allocation was made”.
The second point is about monitoring earnings, so that if chambers decided against releasing the names of barristers alongside their earnings, they should “consider sharing anonymised earnings figures in bands of years of practice or ranges”.
On choice of juniors, the charter says: “When juniors are allocated to silks or other led work, ensure all potential juniors are fairly considered and record the instruction as an opportunity on the chambers management system. Do not simply accept repeated bringing-in of the same junior.”
Chambers should “recognise and challenge the tendency most people have to sponsor individuals who are more like themselves” and consider unconscious bias training.
On marketing, they should “organise as wide a range of marketing activities as possible, with different types of marketing strategy, times of day, activities, and venue”.
Ms Rushton said women barristers were “uncomfortable about the heavy drinking sessions” in the evenings traditionally used to bring in business, and chambers should consider breakfast or lunchtime briefings instead.