Employed barristers “undervalued” by wider profession

Vineall: Employed life more flexible

There is a “strong feeling” that employed barristers are undervalued by their self-employed colleagues, a Bar Council report has found.

While the employed Bar scored higher for diversity, flexible working and wellbeing than private practice, the levels of bullying, harassment and discrimination were no different.

The report was based on a combination of Bar Council statistics, some of them from the biennial Barristers Working Lives survey, and the results of four focus groups held in October last year.

There was “a strong view that the skills of employed barristers are undervalued by the wider profession”. One barrister said: “I think that generally the Bar can be very suspicious (wrongly) of the employed Bar.” Another described the wider Bar as “a foreign country”.

A number of employed barristers “expressed frustration that their employers failed to recognise the different skill sets between barristers and solicitors”.

One said employed barristers in their organisation were “a bit of a wasted resource”, with “very much the same role as solicitors”.

The Bar Council said any view that working at the employed Bar was “easier than working at the self-employed Bar” needed challenging.

“The data suggesting these views persist in some corners of the profession are at odds with the type and quality of work undertaken at the employed Bar, and this evidence should support activity to challenge incorrect perceptions of any employed barrister taking on less significant and interesting work.”

More than half of employed barristers work in the public sector and nearly a quarter for solicitors’ firms. The biggest group specialise in crime (34%), a higher proportion than in the self-employed Bar.

The employed Bar is more diverse, with 19% of employed barristers coming from ethnic minority backgrounds, compared to 15% in private practice, while almost half are female (49%), compared to 37% of the self-employed Bar.

However, the proportion of barristers saying they had experienced bullying, harassment, and discrimination, at 31%, was one percentage point higher than for the rest of the Bar.

One participant said they had experienced bullying in two companies, “and a couple of barristers mentioned they had experienced discrimination – one of the instances was in relation to disability, with the other being linked to gender”.

Half of employed barristers had a flexible working arrangement in place, while 86% said there was a sense of “collaboration and co-operation” in their workplace.

“The view that the employed Bar is more inclusive is perhaps re-enforced by participants who identified income stability as an important factor when making their career decisions.

“This means the employed Bar is more attractive for those who may not have the privilege of a financial cushion for any ‘lean’ periods.”

However, “relatively low incomes” were an issue for employed barristers, particularly those working in the public sector, who observed that this was contributing to a problem with retention.

The report made a range of recommendations for the Bar Council, including promoting careers at the employed Bar, tackling bullying and harassment, and creating communities of employed barristers.

Bar Council chair Nick Vineall KC said the report found the employed Bar was “more diverse, it offers more flexibility and work/life balance, and it reports greater levels of wellbeing” than private practice.

“But it also finds that employed barristers worry about limits to career progression and income, and sometimes feel that there is lack of respect from some at the self-employed Bar.”

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