Female barristers need to actively encourage and mentor the next generation of women at the Bar amid the continuing difficulties of achieving equality, a leading silk said last week.
Jo Delahunty QC said: “I strongly believe that it is the responsibility of those who have climbed the social and professional ladder not knock away the rungs but to lean down to offer a hand for others to hold as they try and climb up.”
A member of 4 Paper Buildings, where she specialises in child law, and a recorder, Ms Delahunty was speaking on equality at the Bar in her role as professor of law at Gresham College, a 400-year-old institution that exists to provide free public lectures in London from leading figures in their fields.
She admitted: “I started off writing this lecture with the goal of celebrating the significance of women at the Bar. I have found the process of writing it depressing.”
The main barriers to qualifying as a barrister for all were the cost and risk, she said.
“Students simply can’t afford to run the financial risk of entering a self-employed, financially precarious, profession when they have racked up so much university student debt over the past three to four years, would have yet to invest in a year’s education at Bar school, followed by the hunt for a pupillage, thence a tenancy before they are ‘established’ enough to even think of building up a paying practice, and a paying practice takes time to develop and fees are notoriously late in payment.
“So, it could be eight to 10 years from the start of university until the first meaningful fees are paid. I started university in 1982 and didn’t receive any regular income until the early 1990s.”
The lecture detailed the many statistics and reports in recent years that have identified the obstacles facing women wanting to join the Bar and those at all levels of practice.
One, unsurprisingly, was harassment. “Like many women entering my profession in the late 1980s, I suffered sexual harassment and didn’t make a formal complaint: booked into a double hotel room when working out of London with my pupil supervisor without my knowledge or consent (I didn’t enter), groping, propositions,” Ms Delahunty recounted.
“Locker room banter in chambers and with clients as often as in the robing room: when chair space was limited in one conference a client offered me his knee to me to sit on and the only reaction was laughter within the room, including from my pupil supervisor.
“I’d like to think things have changed. But some attitudes take time and, for older members of the Bar, society has moved on quicker than their expectations of women have.
“Shortly after being made a Bencher in 2011, I entered The Princes Room in Middle Temple and, dressed as I was dressed in a white shirt and black skirt, was asked by a rather elderly gentlemen when he might expect his tea. I had been mistaken for a member of staff.”
The QC said she had shield away from family law – “I considered it to be a subject that was pushed towards women, pigeon holing them” – but ended up in it due to “financial necessity and finding my vocation”.
She explained: “As a young barrister, I could not afford the luxury of choice over what work I did. I had to adapt or leave the Bar and I simply wasn’t prepared to walk away from a profession and people that inspired.
“I couldn’t stay at the Bar waiting for an income from a civil practice to grow: so (before legal aid cuts) I started to do domestic violence injunctions… The more injunctions I did, the more I wondered about the lives the children led. And so I began my exploration of child protection work. It gripped me. Public law child protection cases became my choice of work.”
Ms Delahunty urged female barristers to encourage the next generation: “We should start this process for young women and BAME students while their mind is still open to future possibilities they may not have contemplated. We should visit state schools and talk about career options.
“We should foster close links with academies. Courts could offer ‘open days’ (some do). The judicial marshalling scheme is not as known about as much as it could be and it could evolve to include young barristers.
“We should offer ‘mini pupillages’ and fund them. We should link up with university law departments and go and speak about the work we do and why. When we attract the brightest and most able pupils into our profession we should understand that mentoring for career progression and silk begins on day
“When women disappear from the radar because of child care responsibilities, we should acknowledge it is happening, recognise it as the loss of intellect and potential it is and think of creative ways to attract parents back. Judges could offer mentoring opportunities.”
She concluded: “Being a mentor is a responsibility as well as a privilege. It is important to see positive role models of women at the Bar and at the bench. Some to aspire to, some to emulate – others to learn from and not to repeat their mistakes.”