Women at the Chancery Bar

We attended a Chancery Bar event for women. Its aim was to encourage more to apply. Here's what was discussed.

In November the Chancery Bar Association invited aspiring female barristers to its ‘Women @ The Chancery Bar’ event. The afternoon aimed to encourage talented women to shelve misconceptions and apply. Female juniors and silks spoke on their positive experiences of work and life at the Chancery Bar. Alice Gormley from Chambers Diversity went along to report on it.

“It isn’t about making grand speeches to big audiences.”

Getting into the Chancery Bar is hard. Aspiring Chancery barristers are advised to take applying seriously, but to not be put off by preconceptions about what kind of individuals Chancery work will suit. Chancery sets are keen to see more applications from women, but the insights shared at this event are applicable to anyone seeking a career at the Chancery Bar: men would be wise to read this too.

The general message is to not be deterred by the buzzwords, but instead to consider how the experience and skills you have make you a good fit for a Chancery career. ‘Advocacy’ is one of those buzzwords, which “you’ve probably done more of than you think.” This junior adds “it isn’t about making grand speeches to big audiences, and I think I always thought it would be a bit like that.” Breaking it down, “you’re actually just talking to the judge and your opponent; you only really connect with those two people.” The speakers are keen to point out that real life is very different to mooting, with different motivations at play. There’s no requisite level of public speaking experience that you need to have: “In my case I’m terrified of public speaking but I still do this job and I love it. In short: don’t be put off.”

Speakers stressed the importance of putting in a “perfect” application, and why advance planning is a crucial part of this. With hundreds of applications to sift through, it’s critical that the one piece of written work you’re judged on is exceptional: “Sets need a good reason to not put someone through, and if you’ve done your application in a sloppy fashion it’ll be put aside.” Tactics vary, but a methodical approach is recommended: “Whenever you decide you want to be a barrister, work out how many years away you are from that goal. Work out exactly what you need to do,” advises one pupil. “I created a document and listed all the chambers that might take me and created a column for every relevant detail. I titled it ‘Battle Plan.’”

The panellists spoke of the need to stand out from the crowd, with one recommending not being afraid to share your hobbies, however unusual: “I did Latin American Ballroom dancing – I’d go to Blackpool on the weekends and put on loads of fake tan. I was happy to say all of this in an interview.” This echoes what we learn from sets: they want to see that you’re an interesting person. Another common misconception came up, too: applicants are afraid to put first jobs in bars or shops on CVs. “It shows you understand customer experience, can deal with difficult clients and are able interact with normal people.” Ultimately: “Don’t try and mould yourself into someone you’re not.”

And if all this doesn’t pay off, advice was to not take it (too) personally: “Over time I’ve put in so many applications for things I didn’t get offered. It’s disheartening at the time, but the rejections themselves don’t matter in the end.” After all, “failure is part of the job – you lose in court. Someone has to win and someone has to lose.”

“It’s a great feeling to conquer a new area of technology, get on top of it and fight your client’s case.”

Chancery work is varied, but a uniting theme is the complexity of the cases “Pensions work tests my brain – it never stands still, which stops me getting bored”, one junior commented. And then IP seems like it gets even more hard core: “What I really enjoy about IP is that you get a patent put on your desk on day one, and it could be complex point about anything from DNA to oil drilling, and you go away and become a specialist by the time you get to trial,” we’re told. “It’s a great feeling to conquer a new area of technology, get on top of it and fight your client’s case.”

Of all the practice areas explored during the session, private client had the more eccentric cases. “When people ask what kind of law I do, I tend to tell them (not entirely politically correctly) that I do dead people and mad people and tax.” On this kind of work barristers tend to come in when things get complex. There’s also a real opportunity to “make a genuine difference to individuals’ lives,” in instances where you’re fighting for clients with a lot at stake, such as in “heart-wrenching” junior provision cases.

I do dead people and mad people and tax.”

“Not only did most of my family and friends think that being a lawyer was boring,” recounted a property barrister, “most of my lawyer friends thought being a property lawyer was even more boring,” but reassured us “they are in fact all wrong.” Part of the appeal was that “the whole of humankind is caught up in the kind of work I do,” which includes everyone from the owners of corner shops, to corporations to struggling social tenants. “You see all walks of life from all angles, and I find that fascinating.” The scenarios you could find yourself in aren’t always ones you could predict, either: “I once climbed out of a window to get onto a roof so I could have a proper look at an air conditioning unit. Your clients love you when you change into jeans and start climbing out of windows – it shows conviction.”

Although the work is generally quite paper-heavy, it varies from practice area to practice area. While a barrister working in pensions will make an appearance in court once a month, an IP junior might be engaged in small hearings and case management hearings punctuated by larger quarterly trials. In property, it depends on your seniority: “As you get more experienced – and more expensive – the trials get longer; my practice is a healthy balance of court work and advisory, but there are usually about eight cases on the go at any one time.” Commercial litigation and civil fraud “often involves fast-moving disputes, meaning you get a lot of exposure and experience,” but there’ll still be a fair amount of time spent out of court. A number of speakers here today frame this as an advantage for those hoping to balance family and professional life in the long term:  “I’m in court once a month on average. I’ve just come back from maternity leave, so I’m grateful my practice is paper heavy and I can be flexible with my own time.”

“I’ve just come back from maternity leave, so I’m grateful my practice is paper heavy and I can be flexible with my own time.”

What is working life like at the Bar? Specifically, what can a female aspiring barrister expect? The optimism of today’s speakers is heartening: “Things have really come a long way. The Chancery bar is a nurturing environment, above all.” That the Chancery – and wider – Bar have struggled in their efforts to keep hold of talented women over the years is, however, no secret: “The issue of retention is one the Bar and Chancery Bar Association are separately looking at. Whether it’s a combination of choice and circumstance, or something more ingrained, getting to the essence of the problem is a top priority.” But tangible efforts are being made to tackle this: “From accommodating parental leave policies to the flexibility to work from home, Chambers actively facilitates women’s return to work following maternity.” It’s evident from this one experienced barrister’s anecdote that, even if there’s work to be done, a lot has been achieved: “Early on in my career, when I told my head of Chambers about taking a second maternity he asked if I wanted him to advertise my confinement in The Bar News – he wasn’t joking!”

“It’s unusual for new starters not to be earning enough to feel comfortable.”

A natural concern for aspiring barristers is that, owing to being self-employed, it’ll be a challenge to achieve financial stability early on. We’re reassured that the risk is minimal: “In a good Chambers you’ll be busy from the beginning. Sets are increasingly introducing measures to ameliorate financial uncertainty – such as cash flow smoothing schemes.” Other sets guarantee first year earnings, which gives tenants a degree of security. It’s easy to forget that “at the junior end of the Chancery Bar solicitors can get the most intellectual firepower for the least amount of money – so you’re unlikely to end up short of work.” Ultimately, “although income can be quite up and down over the course of a year, Chancery barristers earn extremely well in comparison to other areas of the Bar. It’s unusual for new starters not to be earning enough to feel comfortable.”

The speakers described how sets are getting better at encouraging female role models and mentorship in a bid to tackle the Bar’s machismo problem: “A female silk said to me to adopt my own style. She said ‘if you’re flamboyant, great, if you’re funny, great – but be yourself.’ That gave me a lot of confidence as I felt I didn’t need to be showy or aggressive.” Everyone here agrees that the Chancery Bar is a “constructive work environment” where “there’s a respect for the work you’re doing and your ability to do it.” In short, the reasons to fear a career at the Chancery Bar are unfounded, and the concerns a female applicant might have, especially so. The message is distinct: “sets are falling over themselves to attract female candidates” – and as today’s event makes clear, are doubling down on their efforts to retain them, too.