Life's still a trial for female barristers

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The Independent Online
Fiona Bawdon discovers that discrimination against women is alive and thriving in chambers throughout the country

One 22-year-old would-be barrister learnt that a set of chambers to which she had applied for pupillage had a policy of "not taking on fat birds".

In every interview she was asked why she wasn't going into family law - an area traditionally seen as suitable for women - and repeatedly overheard her physical appearance being discussed in the clerks' room.

Sexism - often of the most banal kind - is alive and well within the legal profession, it seems. At a conference organised jointly by the Bar and the Law Society - "The Woman Lawyer: Benefit or Burden?" - many of the 300 women attending said they had experienced first-hand discrimination at the hands of their male colleagues. It is evidence, if any were required, that there are still many hurdles to be overcome on the way to achieving the Lord Chancellor's oft-repeated aim of opening up the senior echelons of the law to those outside the old boy network.

Women barristers are particularly vulnerable to the prejudices of their chamber's clerks, who allocate much of the work that comes in. Delegates - who included Cherie Booth, the successful barrister wife of the Labour leader, Tony Blair, who is tipped to be named a QC tomorrow - told of briefs being switched at the last minute to male colleagues, with no explanation, and of only being given work deemed suitable for women. This was usually family, or what one barrister termed "girly crime" - such as sexual offences or burglary. Heavy-duty cases - murders or armed robberies -invariably went to male barristers.

In his keynote speech to the conference, the Bar Council chairman, Peter Goldsmith QC, acknowledged the enormous power that clerks wield over the future shape of a barrister's career, and the problems this can cause. However, he also laid some of the blame on the prejudices of instructing solicitors.

"Do clerks still too readily fail to put forward women tenants for work traditionally thought of as men's work for fear that solicitors of lay clients will not accept a woman? Do solicitors still too frequently resist the suggestion of a woman barrister because they fear their clients will expect a man? Are both worried that if the case goes wrong, the client will blame them for choosing a woman rather than a man?" said Mr Goldsmith.

He advised junior barristers who feel steered in a direction they do not want to go to tackle their clerks immediately. The future path of a barrister's career will generally be fixed in the first five years or so of practice, after which it is difficult to change direction, he said.

However, one young barrister told of the dangers of complaining about the cases she was allocated by her clerk. As a result, her work nearly dried up altogether, she said.

It is not just women starting out at the Bar who face prejudice. Margaret McCabe, a senior barrister - and initiator of the conference - said she had received appalling treatment at interviews when she had been trying to move chambers recently. Ms McCabe says that, among other things, she was asked whether she intended to give up practising when she got married; informed that women with children - like herself -should not work; and told that it is the women members of chambers who cause problems, which is not surprising because they are verbal bullies and trouble-makers.

Even those with the worst horror stories conceded that things have improved for women in recent years.Probably the strongest proof of their progress is the male backlash.

One delegate was told on her first day of mini-pupillage that there are "too many women at the Bar" and that men were becoming second-class citizens. Another was informed she had only been awarded a scholarship because she was female and black - which, presumably, also explained how she had managed to get a first-class degree.

Anesta Weeks, a senior criminal barrister, had a similar tale. "I'm often reminded by my male counterparts that I could apply for silk tomorrow and be granted my application because I'm black and a woman. It's the greatest insult anyone could give me."

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