Law: Women in law: a brave new era begins

How did a female American barrister take on the legal and political establishments of Britain?
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American women lawyers may not have thanked Ally McBeal for furthering the cause of women or women lawyers, but at least women barristers in England now have a much more forceful role model in the shape of American attorney-turned English barrister Helene Pines Richman.

The 41-year-old Connecticut-born Mrs Richman has just been elected as the chairwoman of the Association of Women Barristers (AWB). And, very much not in the wishy-washy mould of McBeal, the new AWB chairwoman is preparing to take on the English legal and political establishments. In her inaugural speech Mrs Richman has already set out her plan to vet all new legislation for its impact on women, and a research project to look at the way gender - both from the client's and lawyer's perspective - affects the outcome of cases in the civil courts.

She admits she has a history of speaking on behalf of others. When she was growing up in the "beautiful" little town of Woodbridge, in New Haven, she was known as the one with the "big mouth". "I was the person who anybody in school would come to and I always had the big mouth to do something about it." She remembers organising a sit-in over the Kent State massacre when she was just 12 years old.

She originally planned to study medicine, but there was a defining moment which changed her mind when, aged 19, she got a speeding ticket for doing about 50 miles over the speed limit. "I represented myself at the Superior Court in Newhaven, a very imposing building, and I won, and I couldn't have done any better today. I loved the entire atmosphere, and dealing with the judge, and I loved arguing, which comes naturally to me."

Although her degree was in bio-engineering, she then took a course in legal ethics, and that made her decide to "go into law to change law". She then went on to law school at George Washington University in Washington because of her interest in politics.

When she qualified, she joined New York firm Ladas & Parry, practising in intellectual property, and then broadening out to cover legal disputes involving people and gaining a reputation as a trial lawyer along the way.

Then in 1990, she married an Englishman, a property developer. She admits that it was a quick decision. They met in October 1989 and married in 1990, closing up her practice and moving to England. "The deal was I would come here and if I couldn't stand it after five years, we would go back there. I'm not saying whether I could stand it or not after five years, but I'm staying because we are now established here, and I consider home to be here."

Unusually for an American, she decided to re-qualify at the English Bar, unlike most US lawyers who work for solicitors firms. She sat the civil procedure and evidence exams, and admits that it was "very difficult to get a place in chambers, but I am fairly persistent". She has now been at 9 Stone Buildings, Lincoln's Inn for over three years, where the head of chambers, Michael Ashe QC, was her sponsor.

She knew no one at the Bar and admits that there was a resistance to her being an American when she came to the Bar, but nothing was actually said: "I will never know - perhaps one day." One of her first experiences in court involved her calling the judge by the wrong title, and she initially had comments that this was not the way things are done at the English Bar. But she was better prepared than perhaps her critics realised. "In New York," she says, "judges are very, very hard on you, and you earn your stripes by standing up to the judge. I have changed to the extent that I am very polite as is the English way, but never to the detriment of the client."

Mrs Richman's predecessor at the AWB, Barbara Hewson, also made waves by highlighting the discrimination and harassment problems suffered by women barristers, as well as in the general area of women's rights. Ms Hewson says that the American Mrs Richman's election is "a refreshing development because she has a real interest in women's rights and international human rights. If you do have experience in a different jurisdiction, that brings another dimension which can be very valuable."

Ms Hewson adds: "She is so composed and assured, and the great thing about Americans is that they don't put up with any nonsense - in England, people tend to assume that there are others who will pick up on the unspoken signals, and she will cut through all that."

As the new AWB chairwoman, Mrs Richman is looking at women's human rights in general, and wants to have an impact on broader issues relating to women - she cites clippings over a couple of days, such as the state of British fertility services, professional women's pay. She argues: "Some say everything's equal these days, and it's not - the equal pay issue mirrors what is going on in the US." She says that although there is extensive research in the US on the differential treatment, she wants to set up similar research here with the Equal Opportunities Commission.

Also on Mrs Richman's agenda is getting representation from the AWB on the Bar Council which "can only be a force for the good, not only for the Council, which has a stated principle to `mainstream', and you can't mainstream unless there is someone representing women rather than another particular interest."

She adds: "It is open knowledge and published fact that women make up 22 per cent of the Bar, but start off at about 50 per cent. The drop-off can't happen just because women get sick of practising law. It happens because it's bloody difficult to have a family and practise law at the same time - but it doesn't have to be that way - you have to structure practice so that financially and time-wise, it can be done, for both men and women." Mrs Richman is herself a mother of three and knows what she's talking about.

She admits that she is not part of the Bar tradition. "First and foremost I am a trial lawyer and litigation specialist, and I love nothing better than fighting for a cause and putting the case. Moving from one jurisdiction to another positively forced me to examine my motives and forced me to see what could be done for the public good."

As an advocate in the cause of women, she will consult every woman in Parliament and the Welsh Assembly for views on the proposed gender health check, and to raise the issue with Baroness Jay, Minister for Women. As this American with the gender agenda explains: "One of the things I like about being here is it's smaller, and because there is a real fomentation of change at the moment; if you have the energy, you can make a difference, many of the changes going on here were revisited about 30 or 40 years ago in the United States, in law and in life. It's exciting to be in a place where you can make a difference."