Women still struggle at the Bar

By Legal Eagle

There were two depressing reports in The Australian today which indicate that female barristers are not treated equally compared to male barristers in terms of pay and briefing practices.

Well, I’ll tell you something. I would rather brief an unknown female barrister than a unknown male barrister. Not for affirmative action reasons, but because over a number of years I have formed the objective opinion that the quality of female barristers is better on average that that of male barristers. I’ve only ever seen one or two really appalling women. I think women can’t afford to put in a lacklustre performance or they will never get a brief again, whereas men are more likely to be able to get ahead on sheer chutzpah alone.

The spectrum of male barristers has a much greater variation. With some guys, you really wonder how they keep getting briefs. But then you see them briefed again the next week, and see them put in the same lacklustre, lazy performance. The mind boggles. Or you see the guys who are all uber-aggressive front without any real argument backing them up. They probably look really impressive to clients, but I can’t stand them as advocates. That being said, of course I have also seen some superlative male barristers who are hardworking, intelligent and fantastic to work with. Some are a pleasure to watch or to brief. It’s just that it’s a bit more hit and miss.

Why do women get less briefs then? For one thing, there are less of them at the Bar, and they tend to be in more junior roles because of the way in which the Bar works. As a law student I always aspired to go to the Bar eventually. And I do know some women around my age who have done really well at the Bar, but they are childless.

As a mother of a young child with another child on the way, I would not want to be a barrister at this point in my life. I’ve heard stories of some gung-ho female barristers coming in for court appearances within hours of giving birth so as not to miss a brief (seriously). But I don’t want to do that. And if you’re not available all the time, then you are going to be passed over for work. You can’t really be a “part-time” barrister without some other source of income. Briefs come in and you’ve got to be there and available to take them on. A clerk won’t bother to contact you if you are never available to take a file on. Therefore, it’s not so good for women with young children, unless they want to sacrifice family life to a degree. Also, there’s a big financial commitment upfront to do the Bar Readers’ course, which certainly puts me off – why spend all that money when I might not necessarily be able to recoup my expenditure?

There’s a few reasons why those women at the Bar are briefed less, apart from the fact that there are fewer of them. Sometimes I think certain clients would rather have the “authority” of a male barrister in court (particularly in “really important” matters). Sometimes I think it’s just that solicitors don’t bother to look outside those barristers whom they know. Sometimes there’s a bit of the “old boys” network thing going on.

I don’t think gender equality at the Bar (or in the law more generally) will improve until work practices change. And I don’t know how feasible that is. Personally, I’ll defer any idea of going to the Bar until I’ve finished having children and have enough money to survive the first few lean years.

11 Comments

  1. Jacques Chester
    Posted September 26, 2008 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    The spectrum of male barristers has a much greater variation.

    This turns up in studies of intelligence, as I recall — women are better on average but with a much lower standard deviation. Men are more highly represented amongst the outstanding geniuses and the appalling idiots.

    YMMV etc.

  2. Posted September 27, 2008 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Men are more highly represented amongst the outstanding geniuses and the appalling idiots.

    Well I’m not sure about that. I don;t see too many outstanding geniuses on the streets of Melbourne at night. Appalling idiots yeah. In fact, apart from me, they’re all appalling idiots.

  3. Posted September 27, 2008 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    A lot of the legal profession seems to be grounded in ‘networking’. When I was at QUT there was a ‘compulsory’ Thursday night thingamie involving copious quantities of beer at some appalling place where if one didn’t belch and talk rugby one wasn’t ‘one of us’.

    There’s been a lot of scuttlebutt about women getting paid less for doing the same job as the men. Still?

    I’m of the opinion that the third wave of feminism will pretty much be fought by women as individuals in the marketplace. Methinks a girl’s own version of the Old Boy Network might be called for. I don’t really like the idea of gender exclusive associations but what can you do?

  4. dwm
    Posted September 28, 2008 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    I encourage you to brief female barristers. The tosh you read in the papers does not take into account the fact that the really successful female and male barristers have made lifestyle choices most of the community (including many in legal practice) are simply not prepared to make themselves. This is a difficult, demanding game, where you perform in public, often on short notice and with little leisure. So much for my Sunday, for instance.

  5. Martha Maus
    Posted September 29, 2008 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    I naively started at the Bar intending to work part time while my children were young. I hired childcare for the three busiest court days where I would be available. Almost every week these three days would blow out to the full time working week for which includes weekends. The blow outs occurred for a variety of uncontrollable reasons: adjournments, courts holding matters over, matters settling, or short matters, supposedly only a hour or so or a half day , which I would take on because, well, I was already there ( sunk costs of organising house, transport and childcare) but then the substituted brief would, itself, blow out.

    The payment is so slow and unpredictable that I could not work without my husbands steady income or a serious bank overdraft. The money comes in months, sometimes a year, after the work, because the solicitor runs this part of the relationship and sometimes the money doesn’t come in at all, because it’s a last minute brief or the client goes bust. As a junior the barrel we are often over is no work or work with uncertain pay.

    I initally assumed that I was getting most briefs late and having to work weekends because I was junior ( and didn’t know much!) but my senior colleagues do it all the time too. Everyone whinges but nothing changes.

    The system wastes time, is unpredictable and family unfriendly but I am too junior to see any alternatives. It feels like an athlete in the zone when you’re on top of your brief in a trial, and it’s worse than the worst unprepared exam dream when you are not. I love the advocacy but I have to consider my family so I’m looking for alternatives.

  6. Nanu
    Posted September 29, 2008 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    “Women still struggle at the Bar”

    Too bloody right you do especially when it comes to getting the drinks in! You only want equality when it suits. 🙂

  7. Nanu
    Posted September 29, 2008 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    5 weeks to go and counting…

    So pretty much anytime now! 😉

  8. Posted September 30, 2008 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    LE said: “Well, I’ll tell you something. I would rather brief an unknown female barrister than a unknown male barrister.” – and LE is obviously a discerning consumer!

    I’d imagine similar gender-specific societal and career selection pressures apply to both med and the bar.

    I’m a discerning consumer of doctors (I was a medical student and later a pathology/pharmacology major), and all (3) of my GPs for the last 23 years have been female – not because they are female, but because I’ve liked the attitudes and capabilities of those particular individuals after shopping around. Still, it might be coincidence. (My current GP is probably retiring in the next few years… and I’ll have to shop around again! Darn!)

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