The appointment of 33 female silks earlier this year – the highest number ever – is undoubtedly good news for female barristers. Indeed, the bar generally is now more enlightened than it has ever been.
The introduction of the Bar Council’s guidance on maternity and paternity policy, published in 2004, was a big step in the right direction in terms of encouraging more women to practise and, crucially, to keep on practising at the bar. But as the Bar Council statistics suggest, the real work in encouraging more women to enter the profession, and equally importantly in helping them combine professional and family life, needs to come from the chambers themselves.
For individual sets it is about creating a positive, pragmatic attitude throughout chambers, one flexible enough to recognise the unique pressures of working mothers and that does not force them to choose between work and family.
While women are increasingly encouraged back to chambers, it would be unrealistic to pretend that all the prejudices have gone away.
Worried about losing seniority, losing credibility or having to pay full chambers rent, some women barristers still do not return to chambers at all after having children, or they return only reluctantly, or feel pressured into rushing back into full-time practice before they are ready. Each scenario can have negative consequences for both chambers and the bar as a whole.
There is still, unfortunately, a minority who hold the attitude that working mothers can be a hindrance to chambers.
If you are having children it may be perceived that you are not pulling your weight on chambers figures and are not fully committed to your career. Those women who do return to chambers may feel that they cannot speak out for fear of being labelled awkward and their practice suffering as a result. I have been lucky enough not to experience this for myself (quite the opposite, in fact), but I have heard stories that prove there is still work to be done.
By adopting a more flexible, understanding approach to working mothers in the short term, chambers gain much longer-term benefits. Being supportive to working mothers now means happier, more productive and more successful barristers in the future. Rather than demanding that returning mothers start paying full chambers rent immediately on their return, progressive chambers should allow them to return on a sliding scale based on their earnings. It gives mothers invaluable breathing space to start redeveloping their practices gradually after 12 months or longer on maternity leave, without having to plunge straight back in before they are ready.
Clerks play a vital role in creating a working environment that is understanding and supportive of the needs of working mothers. Family-friendly clerking could mean not arranging conferences at 5pm after a day in court. It could be checking with counsel whether they can travel 200 miles to do a case. Or it could be telling solicitors diplomatically that counsel is unavailable that day due to other commitments, rather than saying she has had to leave early to pick the children up from school. Counsel should not be made to feel guilty for having a family, with the commitments and responsibilities that entails, rather than being a barrister who can drop everything at any time to fulfil any role.
Appropriate rules undoubtedly play their part, but a lot more can still be done to create an environment, attitude and ethos that provides women with the support, understanding and confidence to pursue their careers.
It might sound simplistic, but it works. And the investment and effort that is put into female pupils and junior barristers is not wasted, as they stay in chambers, they return to chambers after they have started families and they keep on producing good figures and developing successful and fulfilling practices.
Catherine Howells, barrister, Exchange Chambers