Retention improving at the Bar as average age of barristers rises

MacLeod: Worried about possible implications for access to justice

The proportion of barristers aged over 50 has tripled over the past 30 years, while the number of pupils has shrunk by almost 30%, research by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) has found.

While the proportion of female barristers rose to just over 38% from less than 22% over the same period, the BSB said it was concerned that they were “far more likely to leave” than men after the early stages of their career.

The BSB’s report, Trends in retention and demographics at the Bar: 1990-2020, said the number of practising barristers had grown every year, taking the total from 9,500 to 17,300 over the period.

The proportion of practising barristers from minority ethnic backgrounds almost doubled from 7.8% to 14.8%, with the biggest increases among barristers from Asian or mixed backgrounds.

While 13% of barristers were over 50 in 1990, the figure has now reached 39%. “The Bar is getting older, and its demographics may change significantly as older (and therefore more likely to be White and male) barristers retire.

“Compared to the distribution of the UK working population aged over 25, in 1990/91 the Bar could generally be said to be younger, whereas in 2019/20 the opposite appears to be the case.”

The average age of practising barristers increased less dramatically than the figure for all barristers, from 38.5 years old in 1990/91 to 46.5 in 2019/20, with male barristers around six years older than their female colleagues.

In what researchers described as an “unexpected finding”, despite the older profile of barristers, the proportion of those leaving the Bar and not coming back has remained stable throughout the past 30 years at 2.5%.

On several measures retention appeared to have improved “substantially”, while the proportion of barristers leaving in the first 10 years of their career decreased.

Over the 30 years covered by the research, the average age of female barristers leaving practice has increased by 11 years compared with nine years for male barristers.

In the first half of the 1990s, the average age of female barristers who left practice indefinitely was around 37 and 48 for men. For 2014/15-2019/20, the figures were 48 and 57 respectively.

At the same time, female barristers under the age of 50 were still more likely to leave the profession permanently than men.

Researchers said a greater proportion than would be expected of practising barristers from minority ethnic backgrounds spent either a full year unregistered or left practice and before later returning.

The proportion of pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds rose by five percentage points over the past 30 years to 18.8%.

However, the increase was driven by a rise in pupils from Asian backgrounds, from 6.3% to 9.5%, and mixed backgrounds, from 1.9% to 4.4%. The proportion of pupils from Black backgrounds remained the same, at 3.8% – we reported the claim earlier this week that the paucity of Black QCs was solely down to discrimination.

The total number of Bar graduates starting their pupillage shrank from 757 in 1991 to 542 in 2019/20.

Researchers said it was “yet unclear” what impact the pandemic would have on “patterns on work and retention at the Bar”.

Ewen MacLeod, director of strategy and policy at the BSB, said he was pleased that retention at the Bar continued to improve, and the proportion of female barristers and ethnic minority barristers continued to rise.

However, the BSB was concerned that female barristers were “far more likely to leave after the early stages of their career and it appears that barristers from minority ethnic backgrounds are more likely to have difficulty in the early years to establish themselves professionally”.

Mr MacLeod said the regulator was also worried about “the possible implications for access to justice of the ageing of the profession”, especially with much lower recruitment to pupillage.

Derek Sweeting QC, chair of the Bar Council, commented: “The news that the proportion of female or ethnic minority practising barristers has almost doubled demonstrates progress on diversity and inclusion at today’s Bar.

“Nonetheless, there is still work to do. While retention of women has improved, women still leave in greater proportions than men.”

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