Deka Chambers celebrates International Women’s Day 2024

News

08/03/2024

To mark International Women’s Day 2024, four of our barristers have been discussing some of the key issues that affect women at the Bar today. 

Laura Johnson KC (Call: 2001 | Silk: 2022) – Laura’s practice is focused on claims that are high value, complex or sensitive, acting for both claimants and defendants. She is recognised as a leader in the fields of personal injury, clinical negligence, police claims, inquests and inquiries and public law and human rights. 

Claire Harden Frost (Call 2000) – Claire is skilled at prosecuting and defending serious and complex cases. She is a grade 4 CPS prosecutor who has been appointed to the specialist rape panel for many years. She is a grade 4 specialist serious and organised crime prosecutor and a grade 4 specialist fraud prosecutor. She has also been appointed to the List of Specialist Regulatory Advocates. 

Esther Pounder (Call 2003) – Esther undertakes a wide range of multi-track personal injury matters including employers’ liability, public liability, RTAs, Animals Act and fatal accident claims. She has extensive experience across a wide range of clinical disputes including misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis, informed consent and unnecessary or negligently performed treatment. 

Francesca Kolar (Call 2018) – Francesca practices across all of Deka’s core areas, with particular experience in representing the police and other public bodies in applications for civil orders, including account and cash forfeiture, injunctions, sexual risk orders and closure orders. She also has a promising personal injury and clinical negligence practice, acting for both claimants and defendants.  


In November 2023, the Bar Council reported that, in every call bracket, women earn less than men.  There are still far more male than female silks.  Do you have any views on how we can tackle this ongoing disparity?   

Laura Johnson KC:  

Pay gap 

Women should be paid fairly for the work that they do.  The evidence shows that in many cases they are not.  Pay matters.  Everyone should be fairly compensated for the contribution they make.  More fundamentally though paying women properly gives working mothers choices about childcare and a better opportunity to return to the workforce, to seek and achieve promotion and to develop their careers in accordance with their ambition, no more restricted than the fathers they work alongside.   

Whether we want to accept it or not, the gender pay gap is a serious issue at the Bar. It is common to hear this being doubted at the Bar with responses like “barristers work to fixed fees so it can’t be an issue here”, “work allocation is not driven by gender, so it can’t be an issue here”.  Yet the statistics show that it is an issue and one that exists at all levels and in all areas.  How and why it happens is much more complex than it being simply a question of lower fees being negotiated for one barrister compared to another.   

The Bar Council have been doing important work, providing Guidance for Chambers on analysing their data.  Our EDI committee are working with the support of our clerks room to put in place methods to monitor and help us understand our own data.   This needs to be standard practice for all Sets.   

Mindset going into this process is very important.  There is a danger that the exercise subconsciously becomes about proving there isn’t an issue, rather than investigating whether there is one and why.  It is crucial that Sets collate and scrutinise their data accepting the cold hard fact that the pay gap exists at the Bar and may exist in their own Set.  With the correct starting point in mind, which I believe we have at Deka, the motivation should be to discover what is the situation internally; to be active and curious to find out why and to be purposeful and creative about the potential for change. 

Silk 

The dialogue around applying for Silk needs to change and we are working hard to do that.  Many barristers take Silk between 20 and 30 years Call.   For working mothers who came to the Bar in their 20s or 30s, these are years that can feel most pinched because family demands are at their height competing with pressures of a demanding practice.  Women are naturally more inclined to think “why would it be me?” whereas the male mindset can lean more towards “why not me?” or “when will it be me?”.  This is borne out by the KC Appointments Commission statistics on who applies, how many times and who succeeds.   

I don’t think this is the result of the fundamental difference in the female psyche.  It is more because if the people ahead of you do not look and sound like you and may not appear to share the same pressures as you outside of work it is harder to imagine that something is achievable.  I felt this keenly and so was particularly proud to become the first woman Silk in our Set, so that the women following me can see that it is possible for them.  Add in the pressures of juggling life as a working mother and parental guilt about what taking Silk might mean for the demands on one’s time the confidence to take the step to apply for Silk can be hard to find, however good one’s practice is.   

Career development conversations that consider the potential for Silk should be part of the practice development of all barristers from mid years of call onwards, normalising the aspiration.  That way barristers are supported to consider the strengths of their practice.    

We also need to support one another. I have benefitted from the kindest encouragement from colleagues, opponents and judges.  I try hard to pay that forward, encouraging senior junior women to believe that it could be them, to think hard about career progression and to apply.  I was beside myself with delight to see a hugely impressive woman from another Set take Silk this year with her journey in part nudged by a passing conversation we had had about “if me, why not her”.  My message to working mothers is that ambition is not selfish or prioritising yourself over your children.  In fact I have found that the development of my practice in Silk works well with my caring commitments because I travel less and can work from home for a good proportion of each week.   

Claire Harden-Frost: There are no quick fixes and multiple causes. I would suggest the process itself needs rethinking. It is expensive. Yes, there is a reduction in the application fee for those on more modest incomes but that is simply the start of paying out large sums of money if you want to succeed in the process. The reality is that if you are the main breadwinner, and/or practising in a less lucrative area the expense is often not justifiable. Then there are the realities of a silks practice. For those who actually want to see their children, how is that going to work if you are travelling across the jurisdiction? How are the children going to get to school?  

I often wish women would feel as readily able to apply when they have the cases required as men do. We are in the main dreadful at getting up the nerve to ask for references. I would say to other women don’t waste opportunities because we were taught not to be cocky and not to bother people. Finally, if you are leading someone, be aware that they may want to ask the Judge to be a referee for a silks application. They can only do that if you don’t insist on doing all the best parts of the process. Give them the opportunity to shine. 

Esther Pounder: It is striking and concerning that there remains such a clear and substantial difference between the earnings of male and female barristers at all levels of call.  

That the disparity starts so early (according to the report women earn 17% less than men within the first 3 years of practice) and persists shows that this is unlikely to be explained solely by the effects of maternity leave and part time working.  

There needs to be action right at the start of barristers’ careers to make sure that work is always fairly allocated, that there is equal access to marketing opportunities as well as practice development support and monitoring to avoid patterns of earnings becoming entrenched.  

Francesca Kolar: Having been called to the Bar in 2018, it was surprising to learn last year of the ongoing pay disparity between male and female barristers, in particular that across the Call bands, for those who practice in Personal Injury, that women’s median gross earnings are around 30% less than men’s.  

In terms of trying to tackle this disparity I think individual Chambers should conduct a holistic review into fees by brackets of call and practice areas, and then try to drill down into the factors that might be contributing to the disparity as these could be numerous from differences in hourly rates, to barristers taking time away from practice for parental leave or perhaps even underbilling. If we know more about the factors which are contributing to disparity, then we are armed with more knowledge and data to be able to make recommendations about ways to resolve it. If it transpires that earnings disparity is more entrenched at the senior end of the Bar, then perhaps there could be more focus on the junior end to try to prevent this from developing at such a startling percentage in the years to come.  

In light of the ongoing issue of retention of female, and in particular senior female, barristers, what has helped you to stay at the Bar? 

LJKC: I love my job.  It is important to me and I have worked hard to build my career.  I find the work that I do interesting and rewarding and I have always wanted to continue to work whatever my personal circumstances.  I am also very determined! 

Despite the learning curve I have described I have also always been extremely happy in my Chambers.  I have been fortunate to be surrounded by a collegiate atmosphere with supportive colleagues and have been delighted to discover that this remains just as good, but with many new friends, since we formed Deka.  This has motivated me to find a way to make it work and I am so glad that I have, because I cannot imagine spending my time doing anything else.   

EP: Stubbornness to an extent I think plus I have been very fortunate, since the early days of my career, to have been at a set which has consciously pushed back against this trend. Being in Chambers with a number of successful more senior women I think has always given me confidence that I am on the right path. I am sure that I would have questioned my choices far more had I seen more senior female colleagues and friends in Chambers leaving the Bar.  

The parental leave policy in Chambers has also undoubtedly played a part in me being able to continue after having children. It meant that I was able to return to work in a way that was achievable and which I was comfortable with (I initially worked 3 then 4 days a week when my children were very small before returning to full time work).  

The support that I had from my clerks on my return to work after maternity leave also played a huge part, they helped me to build up my practice again by ensuring I had access to all of the marketing opportunities and support that I needed. 

What was coming back to the Bar after parental leave like for you?  Do you have suggestions on how barristers might be better supported on returning from parental leave? 

LJKC: My children are 11, 9 and 7 so my experiences are dated now, but I did not have the best experience of maternity leave and returning to work.  There were only two working mothers senior to me in the Set I was in when I had my eldest daughter, meaning that there was not a strong model for women to follow and I did not feel empowered to suggest changes in my working practices to make things easier.  So I adapted life at home rather than at work, showed up and, when I needed to, stayed late even when it was difficult for me personally.   

This underlines the importance of Chambers being diverse and proactive places where conversations around work-life balance and caring responsibilities are the norm.  Adaptations and flexibility should be offered proactively and the dialogue should be around how to make “work” work for you, not the other way round.  Working through the night and at weekends, compromising your personal life, should not be championed as a sign of success.   

I hope and believe this is the culture we promote at Deka.  We have many working parents (not just mothers) who have caring responsibilities and a very good number of working mothers at all levels of seniority.  I hope our new (and not so new) parents feel they have plenty of people to talk to, an experienced clerks room and a Set where all sorts of models of working are in place to support parents to thrive in practice whilst also balancing a rewarding home life.   

The EDI committee have recently done a very significant amount of work updating and improving our parental leave policy, which we believe offers excellent provision to support parents to take leave but also to be able to return when they are ready in a way that works for them.   It is important that these policies look at the needs of both parents because it is much easier for women in the workplace when it is recognised and accepted that their partner can take time out for parental leave too, giving the mother more flexibility over her return to work and families more choices. 

CHF: Coming back to the bar after parental leave is different for everyone. In my case there was the guilt of leaving my much wished for child versus the fear of staying with them and ruining my career. If you practice in a less well paid area like I do and if you are reliant mainly on your own income then there is no denying that it is very difficult indeed. 

When I first came back and although I had only had six months out of Court, I felt very rusty and it took several years for that feeling to go away. On the positive side, having children really helps put work in context, I am far less likely to spend time worrying if a Judge doesn’t like my submissions.  

What helped me was being in a chambers where I was able to diversify my practice to some extent. I think it is important to recognise that everyone’s circumstances are different and to try and make support as individual as possible. I would advise anyone who is preparing for a period of parental leave to have regular discussions with their clerks about what support they will need going forward and those conversations should continue, albeit virtually, through any period of leave. Clerks should be ready to prioritise members of chambers who are returning from parental leave and be aware that the person will likely be a little different to the person they worked with previously.  

EP: I was surprised by how daunting I found it particularly when I returned after my first maternity leave. The first time back on my feet felt very scary and strange and I remember feeling very unsure of myself for several months. Regaining my confidence that I could do the job was a real challenge for me and something that took time and effort to overcome.  

I also found the sudden need to balance work demands with those of a young child took some getting used to. Adjusting my work patterns, for example not being able to rely on the ability to work in the early part of the evening and the impact of a lack of sleep or the inevitable childhood illnesses, were all challenges that I hadn’t really given much thought to until they applied to me.  

As I said in answer to one of the earlier questions the practical support I had on my return was crucial for me and I think tailored support is likely to be essential for anyone returning from a period of time away from their practice. I think that there is a need to recognise that the need to rebuild connections lost by a period of absence comes right at the moment where confidence may well be low. Acknowledging that and ensuring that there are opportunities for practice development and marketing that work for the individual is so important. So too I think are the efforts of other members of Chambers to help people returning from parental leave to once again feel part of the Chambers’ community. 

Do you consider it possible to have a good work/life balance at the Bar?  If so, what factors help to achieve this? 

FK: Yes, I think you can, but from my experience it is largely down to the individual barrister and the boundaries that you are willing to put in place between work and home life.  

I have found that you need to be able to communicate with your clerks about your capacity for taking on more work and remind yourself that you can still be a go-to ‘yes’ person, happy to help out, but still explain that on the odd occasion you can’t take on that piece of work.  

Whilst I do not practice what I preach, I also think it would be helpful to try to separate work and home life. Perhaps a work phone which receives work emails and calls, so you don’t go to bed at 11pm and do a quick refresh of your emails, we have all been there. I also often work from Chambers rather than at my dining room table to try and achieve some semblance of separation, otherwise the conclusion of the working day is very blurred.  

Any final words of wisdom for how the Bar can inspire inclusion for women at the Bar? 

EP: A huge amount has changed in the time I have been at the Bar. There are more women than ever entering the profession and achieving at the highest level. I still notice the days on which I have a hearing with both a female opponent and a female judge but those days are not as rare as they were at the start of my career. I hope that for women entering the profession, or considering doing so, seeing a great many other women doing the job at all levels gives them confidence that this is a job they too can do and have the opportunity to excel at.  

FK: Whilst there can be pitfalls to being at the self-employed Bar, for example having to manage your finances carefully and juggling a demanding caseload, fundamentally it is a career where you have significant flexibility in terms of your work pattern, and you set the goals that you want to achieve. If you prefer to work early in the morning, or late into the evening, or want to lay down strict boundaries about working on weekends then you can make those choices to work around your home and family life. Focusing on this flexibility in my view is so important to inspiring inclusion for women at the Bar and hopefully retaining them. Every industry has its pros and cons, but at the Bar you have the ability to control and grow your practice. It is also very exciting to hear that following the BSB’s annual diversity report, published in January 2024, that as of 1st December 2023 the proportion of women at the Bar is now at 40.6%, and of the 572 pupils nearly 60% of them were female. The tables are turning.  

If you missed our webinar last year, where some of our barristers discussed issues in pursuing a career in the law, you can watch it here.

Featured Counsel

Laura Johnson KC

Call 2001 | Silk 2022

Esther Pounder

Call 2003

Francesca Kolar

Call 2018

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