Research led by female barristers has highlighted the stark choices faced by women trying to balance working in private practice with looking after children.
A recent survey by the Western Circuit Women’s Forum (WCWF) found that 14 of the region’s 15 barristers who had left the self-employed Bar mid-career in the last six years and responded to its survey were women.
The most popular reasons given for their decision were the difficulty of balancing work and family commitments, wanting to spend more time with their families and too much travelling.
This was followed by inflexible working arrangements, unpredictability of income, pressure of work, and the cost of childcare.
“In general, responses suggest that a wide array of factors and difficulties combine to influence decisions about whether to leave the self-employed Bar, with issues around childcare taking prominence.”
The WCWF said it intended to use the survey to inform a ‘back to the Bar protocol’, to assist chambers to put into place policies and procedures to increase the proportion of women who return to work after parental leave, and to support them when they do.
One female barrister quoted in the report described combining a “real practice” with childcare as “extremely difficult”, while another said she could only do it because her husband was self-employed and was able to share some of the responsibility.
The WCWF said it identified almost 100 barristers in the circuit who had left in the past six years or taken career breaks. Those who had retired or left the Bar to become judges, mainly men, were excluded.
Of those remaining, 70 responded to the survey, 64 of whom were women. The results were analysed by an independent researcher. Most of the barristers who left mid-career practised in criminal law.
One of them said: “I also found the topic of crime increasingly toxic and didn’t deal well with stress associated with defending/prosecuting increasingly serious sex crime/violence.”
The survey found that 55 of the 57 barristers on the Western Circuit who had taken career breaks of more than six weeks in the last six months were women.
A majority of them (61%) agreed with the statement ‘I found it difficult to return to work’.
While 63% said flexible working arrangements had been offered, less than half (46%) felt that clerks were ‘supportive and accommodating’ in making changes to their practice.
One described the reaction of a senior clerk to her pregnancy: “When I announced my pregnancy, the senior clerk at the time said to me ‘You won’t be back’.
“I went to work after 3.5 months, partly to prove him wrong. I did not feel supported at all with my return to work by my senior clerk but the other clerks were amazing.”
However, another said: “I have not wanted to tell my clerks about my problems and that I am struggling to cope as I do not want to feel unprofessional in any way.
“I am good at my job, I am a good barrister but I feel I am buckling under the pressure, somewhat.”
More than a third (37%) were able to reduce work-related travel by changing their practice, while 39% were given access to flexible rent arrangements by chambers.
The WCWF recommended that ‘back to work’ programmes should be developed for women returning to the Bar, setting out best practice and building on Bar Council guidance.
The forum called for “reasonable adjustments to be made to court listing procedures nationally” to accommodate the needs of those with caring responsibilities.
Flexible rent provision should be available to those taking career breaks and there should be training for clerks to improve understanding of the difficulties facing working parents.
The forum said there should be better access to networking opportunities for women of all ages and mentoring programmes involving younger female barristers should be extended.
The survey concluded: “The Western Circuit, in line with the rest of the country, is losing experienced practitioners from the Bar, particularly publicly-funded court-based work, and is losing more women than men.
“If the Western Circuit can highlight those areas of good practice and assist more chambers to adopt them, retention of women at the Bar may be improved, and that in turn may go some way to address the imbalance at the senior Bar and judiciary.”
The WCWF is holding an event on International Women’s Day, on the afternoon of Friday 8 March, entitled ‘Women in law – Support, retention and progression’. Speakers include Mrs Justice May, president judge on the Western Circuit. For more information, email email@example.com.