Achieving a gender balance in the legal profession

When Baroness Hale became the first female president of the UK’s Supreme Court earlier this year, I was delighted that her appointment was seen as the opportunity to encourage greater diversity in the legal profession, as this supports a new piece of research by the Work Foundation, recommending a number of ways through which Queen’s Council Appointments (QCA) can help to improve the number of women applying for QC status so equal gender diversity can be achieved at QC level, and consequently make use of all the skills of those in the legal sector.

‘Balancing the Scales: A study into the under-application by women for appointment as Queen’s Counsel’,  argues that there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that having a workforce that has both equal and diverse representation can increase innovation and effectiveness for the organisation and improve wellbeing and job satisfaction for the individual.  Recent statistics provided by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) have shown that there is an approximate 50:50 gender balance being achieved at Call to the Bar, however there is a higher attrition rate of women when in practice, leading to the BSB to conclude that current trends suggest that a 50:50 gender balance among practicing barristers in unlikely to be achieved.  This ultimately means that the proportion of women eligible to apply for QC status is limited highlighted by the statistic that only 13% of current QCs were women.  Although QCA statistics indicate that women applicants are more likely to be successful in the competition, the number of women applying remains low.

This graph shows the decline in the number of women at the Bar, reducing from 53% at Call to 19% 25 years after being called to the Bar.
Gender composition of the Bar by length of Call (Source: Bar Standards Board data, 1 December 2016)

Although recent changes to the application had been recognised (making the system more transparent and competency based reducing the influence of the ‘old boys network’), through interviews with both QCs and self-employed barristers, the Work Foundation highlighted a number of factors that the QCA could improve with the current application system that if amended may encourage more women barristers to apply.  These included:

  • Reducing the requirement of having 12 cases of substance within the two year boundary that was seen as especially difficult for women who had taken time out of the profession for caring responsibilities to achieve;
  • Reducing the number of judicial references that need to be obtained as women often reported approaching judges for references difficult (both as a result of reduced confidence and because caring responsibilities limited their opportunities for attending evening social or networking events);
  • Shortening the application process, often labelled as ‘the longest ever job interview’ which women (and men) described as stressful, and women in particular finding it difficult to fit in around work commitments, often having to take time off work to complete resulting in financial implications;
  • Improving the transparency of the application (providing clarity regarding the weighting of assessment methods and of the competencies required);
  • Ensuring the selection panel is representative of the applicants; and,
  • Removing the ‘competition element’ from the application form to re-emphasise that the system is based on competencies and there is not a restriction of places.

However, importantly the research also highlighted that the QCA will need to work alongside other stakeholders in the legal system (for example, the BSB, the Law Society and Chambers) to help reduce the level of attrition that occurs before women reach the application stage if gender equality and full skill utilisation is to be achieved at QC level.  For example, research in other sectors has recently suggested that mentoring can have an important role in closing the gender gap, and participants in the study often discussed how the limited access to mentoring and the lack of formalised professional development received was a factor that could be addressed to improve the confidence of women in the profession, and provide them with the ‘nudge’ they needed to apply.  The role of Chambers in developing maternity policies that made it financially sustainable to return post maternity leave, and the role of clerks in understanding that women may have to work more flexibly as a result of their caring responsibilities were also highlighted as causes for change.  It was also frequently highlighted that in Chambers and the legal profession in general, there was a need for more women role models to show that achieving success in what is still viewed as a male dominant profession is important.

The Work Foundation are pleased to note that some changes to the application process have been made by the QCA for the current round of applications as a result of early research findings, however, I believe if equal gender diversity at QC status is to be achieved, then the wider barriers must also be addressed.