Pandemic hit lowest-earning barristers hardest as big pay gaps persist

Barristers: Marked pay disparities

The pandemic has had more of an impact on incomes at the lower-earning end of the Bar than among the big billers, according to new research by the Bar Standards Board (BSB).

One in four White male barrister earns more than £240,000 a year, compared to one in 15 female barrister from a minority ethnic background.

The regulator’s latest analysis of data on barristers’ income by gender and ethnicity showed the same overall patterns as when it was first published two years ago, with women earning less than men, and those from minority ethnic backgrounds less than White barristers.

This is by every measure: self-employed, employed, QCs, whether inside and outside London, similar years of call and areas of practice.

The BSB said the disparities could not be explained away by seniority, geography or area of law practised.

The gender gap was greater: the mean income for female barristers in 2020 was £121,598, just 53% of the £229,578 average for men.

The median figures – which are not skewed by outliers – were closer: £78,847 for women and £110,340 for men.

The mean income for minority ethnic barristers was £135,132, 68% of the £197,834 earned by White barristers. The median figures were £71,000 and £102,095 respectively.

Once ethnicity was looked at in more detail, Black and Black British barristers earned less than Asian and Asian British barristers overall.

Intersectionality meant that female barristers from minority ethnic backgrounds were the lowest-earning group, with average incomes 41% of those of the highest, White male barristers.

Some 45% of these women were in the lowest two income bands (up to £60,000), nearly double the proportion of White men.

Conversely, fewer than one in 15 female barristers from minority ethnic backgrounds (6.6%) earned £240,000 and over, compared to one in four (26%) White male barristers, 16% of minority ethnic male barristers, and 11% of White female barristers.

The BSB said it repeated the 2020 exercise to track the impact of Covid.

It found: “Comparing incomes in 2020 with 2019, it seems clear that the pandemic has impacted on incomes at the Bar, with most groups analysed facing falls in income.

“This analysis suggests the largest falls in income have been for male barristers from minority ethnic backgrounds, and barristers based outside of London.

“In general, female barristers seem to have seen smaller falls in income overall than male barristers, and minority ethnic barristers have seen larger falls than White barristers. The employed Bar seems to have experienced the smallest fall in incomes.”

But these falls have not been distributed equally, with the proportion of those in the lowest two income bands increasing, “often markedly”.

In 2020, 25% of men and 35.4% of women declared incomes of less than £60,000 in 2020, each representing an increase of four percentage points, meaning a steeper rise among men.

At the same time, there has been almost no change in the proportion in the highest income bands. “Indeed, for some groups (female barristers from White or minority ethnic backgrounds), the proportion in the highest income bands increased from 2019 to 2020,” the BSB said.

Falls in income were larger for certain areas of practice than others too. When looking at the four most common areas of practice, criminal law saw the largest fall in incomes, while family and personal injury law saw smaller decreases.

In commercial and financial law, by contrast, incomes actually increased – except for female barristers.

The report said past BSB research indicated that the reasons for these disparities could include favouritism around work allocation, and a drop-off in work allocated to women if they attempted to work flexibly to care for children or when they returned from maternity leave.

Further, barristers from minority ethnic backgrounds were more likely to be working at the employed Bar or as sole practitioners, “which may well impact on their earnings”.

The BSB said it would look to work with the profession to consider what could be done to reduce the disparities.

“Chambers are already expected to monitor work allocation and may wish to consider the Bar Council’s guidance on good practice for work allocation around sex and race,” the report said.

“If this monitoring identifies disparities in the allocation of work, chambers should develop plans to address the issue and help ensure equality in work allocation.

“Similarly, chambers and employers may consider analysing and publishing their income pay gap data by ethnicity and gender.”

The BSB collects income data as part of the annual practising certificate renewal process. The figures are gross.

Separate Bar Council research last year showed how the income gap between male and female barristers had increased over the previous 20 years.

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