Attracting the best and brightest women lawyers to the Bar
On 8 March 2017 Greenway Chambers adopted a policy that allows a chambers member to take a period of 6 months leave free of rent and chambers fees following the birth or adoption of a child.
Professor George Williams’s upcoming article on gender equality among barristers before the High Court reveals how rarely women appear before the High Court, despite the fact that for years more than half of all law graduates have been women.
His research did not extend to examining the reasons for this, but when Professor Williams discussed his findings at a recent Bar Association seminar he said that female (but not male) law students regularly questioned him about whether they should go to the Bar. Why? Because they worried that it was “not family friendly”. Women make up less than 20% of the NSW Bar.
The structure of the NSW Bar dissuades female law graduates from becoming barristers. I discussed the reasons for this in some detail in an article for Bar News: Parental Responsibilities at the Bar. One of those reasons is the financial effect of taking parental leave, something that usually occurs before a barrister has become senior and well established. Not only is there no paid leave for barristers, who are sole practitioners, but they must continue to meet significant ongoing costs on leave, in particular, the responsibility to pay rent and chambers fees.
It has recently been suggested to me that a woman who takes 6 month’s maternity leave at the Bar will be about $250,000 worse off than her contemporary who is a senior associate at a large law firm. The senior associate will receive paid leave and will return to work at the same level of income. The barrister will receive no income during leave, reduced income after returning while she rebuilds her practice, and must continue to pay practice expenses while on leave.
In the UK, where Barristers Chambers are regulated by a central authority, all chambers must offer 6 months leave free of rent and chambers’ fees. In Victoria, where most barristers are in rooms they rent (but do not purchase) from a Bar owned company, barristers can retain their room and pay 25% of their rent for 6 months.
There are no fixed rules or policies that apply to the NSW Bar as a whole. The Bar Association publishes ‘Best Practice Guidelines‘ which it encourages the various Chambers to adopt, with mixed success.
There remain chambers in Sydney that discourage barristers licensing their room (ie subletting it) for any reason, and many refuse to allow sharing of a room for those who have returned from a period of leave and wish to reduce costs while working part-time.
Most chambers will do what they can to assist a member to licence their room, and so cover or defray those costs, during a period of parental leave, but the risk remains on the parent taking leave where no licensee can be found. I am not aware of any other chambers that has adopted a policy of allowing a chambers member to be relieved of floor fees and rent during parental leave.
The NSW Bar has historically prided itself as being the home of the best and brightest legal minds in the country. But if it wishes to attract and retain the best of the 50% of graduates who are women it needs to address the structural issues that dissuade many of them from coming to the Bar.
And so I was very pleased that, on International Women’s Day, my fellow floor members agreed to adopt a policy that I proposed. The policy assists members taking leave to licence their rooms, permits rooms to be shared, and removes from members the obligation to pay rent and floor fees while taking parental leave for 6 months.