Elbowing their way to the Bar

While 44 per cent of newly qualified barristers are women, this figure is not reflected in chambers or among the judiciary. Kim Thomas reports

"The Bar is a pure meritocracy," says Emma-Jane Abbott. "It will always find a place for somebody who has the ability to excel." Ms Abbott, 27, is one of the 44 per cent of newly qualified barristers this year who are women, and is confident that she is as likely to succeed in her chosen career as her male colleagues.

The Bar has always represented an attractive option for the ambitious and highly motivated. It's not a career for the faint-hearted. As Ms Abbott explains: "The Bar attracts a certain kind of person. You have to show confidence and drive. It appeals to me because it gives me independence, and makes an impact on people's lives."

Jo Hayes, chairwoman of the Association of Women Barristers, agrees: "I enjoy it because I like the analytical side of it. I like the intellectual challenge and the large degree of autonomy. And I like winning."

Becoming a barrister is not an easy process. Typically, would-be barristers take a law degree and then do a year's training (unfunded - there are no student grants) at the Inns of Court. Then comes the struggle for pupillage at a set of chambers, a highly competitive process. Pupillage lasts two years, and the first six months is often unfunded. After that, junior barristers are expected to work long and demanding hours, often having to prepare a case the night before a trial.

Women have the added problem of being relative newcomers to a profession steeped in the atmosphere of the old boy network. It is only 75 years since Ivy Williams became the first woman in Britain to be called to the Bar. It was the culmination of a long battle - women first applied to the Bar in 1902, and were turned down - and the beginning of another one. For many years the proportion of barristers who were women remained tiny (8.1 per cent as recently as 1976) and women had to contend with a deep- rooted male desire to keep women out, on the basis that the profession was already "overcrowded". As Helena Kennedy put it nearly 20 years ago: "Females have become a luxury the profession cannot afford."

But how much easier is it today? Ms Hayes believes that the Bar is still not a "level playing field". The Association of Women Barristers has expressed concern about the system of "secret soundings" that barristers are appointed to silk and to the judiciary. "As a woman you are less likely to know senior members of the legal profession socially," says Ms Hayes.

The recent introduction of an Equality Code by the Bar Council shows that the profession is beginning to take women's grievances seriously, but Ms Hayes says: "The jury's out on how well it's going to work."

And the statistics suggest there is a long way to go: despite the large numbers entering the profession, only 6 per cent of QCs are women.

Patty Walsh, a solicitor who spent four years at the Bar, but left the profession after having her first child, is forthcoming about the difficulties women face as barristers. "It would be impossible to be a mother and a barrister if you were the major earner in a relationship. There is no way you can combine childminding and a life at the Bar."

The difficulties, she says, arise from the long hours barristers are expected to work (often 12 or 13 hours a day) and the range of geographical locations they have to be in. "You could be in Southampton on Monday, Sheffield on Tuesday and London on Wednesday. But clerks are not concerned about personal difficulties. If they've got a good brief for you that's all they care about."

Ms Walsh also has her reservations about the attitude of male colleagues at the Bar. "I was very lucky, because I was with a liberal-minded chambers, but there is a culture at the Bar, especially among judges, which is slightly patronising.

"You have to ape male behaviour to be successful."

There is some cause for optimism, however. The numbers of women entering the Bar are rising all the time, with them, not just ambition and determination, but also skills more traditionally seen as "feminine", such as the ability to listen.

Ms Abbott believes that part of her strength is her ability to deal sympathetically with clients: "I find that I have a good rapport with defendants. You're often dealing with very vulnerable individuals. You can't communicate the feeling you get as an advocate for that person.'

And, despite all the drawbacks, it's still an exciting profession if you make it. Ms Walsh believes that other women wanting to try the Bar should not be put off by her own experience. "I'd say, 'Go for it'. In terms of interest and stimulation, it's brilliant."

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