A profession not at ease with itself or the world? Bar’s Working Life Survey

I took a little time to browse the Bar’s working life survey. It’s a large survey. Although it’s not immediately clear how representative it is, almost 3,300 barristers completed it. Here are some of the things I noted (this is a rather idiosyncratic list so read the report if you want a fuller view):

The problem of bullying, harassment and discrimination is discussed. It’s less of a problem at the self-employed bar (12% experienced problems) than the employed bar (22%). In the CPS the figure is a whopping 35%. What do people most often report bullying, harassment or discrimination on appears to be being female, BME or disabled; having the main responsibility for childcare, responsibility for adult care, minority sexual orientation, or having been to a non-Oxbridge university. A less than resounding 40 per cent of barristers would positively recommend a career at the Bar, and 51 per cent would opt for the Bar if they started their career again. They feel that the Bar is respected but not a family-friendly area in which to work. It is hard to work-part time. Particularly interestingly is the finding that the Bar seems not to think that the Bar attracts the best quality entrants, regardless of background. This feeling is strongest amongst the employed Bar but is a view widely shared across the Bar.

Gender is a pretty strong theme of the report. Female barristers are more likely to be single or divorced than their male counterparts, particularly those aged 45 and over and women with children are far more likely to take the main responsibility for childcare: 57% did this compared with 4% of male barristers. Shared childcare is however getting more common.

Diversity generally is a strong focus of the report, which is to be applauded, but I could not help noticing this sentence and imagining non-Russell Group student, lecturers and barristers gnashing their teeth as they read this:

Barristers are highly qualified academically. Overall, 32 per cent (45% of the Young Bar, i.e. those one to three years since Call) went to Oxbridge, and 46 per cent to a Russell or 1994 Group university. In addition, 18 per cent (41% of the Young Bar) have Firsts; the percentage of Firsts has risen from 15 per cent in 2011.

The insinuation will not be lost on the teeth-gnashers: perhaps it is the ideology which supports the bullying complained of earlier. One should also emphasise that the Bar is getting more Oxbridge than it was (30 to 45% is a big shift even with some volatility likely given the small numbers of pupillages). It is also taking more students with first class honours. The size of the firsts growth looks to me stronger than the general increase in students with first class honours in the student population, but that is a bit of speculation on my part.

There’s an interesting passage on what best predicts becoming Silk. As well as length of call the following are the strongest independent predictors of QCdom:

  • Studying at Oxbridge
  • Getting a first
  • Type of secondary schooling

To spell out the significance of the finding: once the impact of a candidates length of call, degree grade and law school has been taken account of where a candidate went to school until the age of 18 has made a significant difference to whether they achieved silk. The old school tie has made a difference independent of any objective indicator of merit available (putting aside the vexed question of whether where one went to law school indicates merit). This discrimination, if I may call it that, takes place within a cohort already narrow in demographic terms.

There’s some interesting other nuggets. The fervour with which the Bar defended the Cab Rank principle is not entirely borne out with membership enthusiasm. 69% of private practitioners agree it is an important principle to retain, meaning nearly a third did not. Only 38% of private practitioners thought they had a good understanding of the role of the BSB, and 18% thought BSB is an effective regulator of the barristers’ profession. I’ll leave it to a smart reader to work out the import of that one. I don’t understand what you do, but I know you’re not good at it? Sarcasm aside, these numbers have to shift and PDQ.

There’s one set of findings which I thought particularly interesting. This provides a little insight into what might make different bits of the Bar tick.

What struck me was that family and criminal lawyers want to make a difference but PI lawyers don’t (I’d be surprised if the same was true for solicitors, but this may reflect a stronger divide between claimant and defendant work?). Different sections of the Bar appear to have quite different values. I guess that’s to be expected. Yet there are similarities: it’s the interest of the work which barristers most often claim motivates them. My favourite stat, I have left until last. It is this, “men working at the criminal Bar are more likely to indicate that the work offered a ‘challenge’ (29% compared with 19% of female barristers).” Maybe the men get more complex work. Maybe they’re more easily challenged.*

To be more serious, the overall thrust of the report is interesting and concerning. There is a good deal of discussion of shifts in barristers’ earnings and workloads. Criminal and family lawyers are doing more for less or doing less for less. Significant minorities are thinking of leaving. Whilst the commercial feels (and almost certainly is) more confident the survey paints a picture of a profession ill at ease with itself, who it recruits and promotes. They do not quite say, we are not the best, but they do say we do not recruit the best. The implication of the findings on silks is clearly that they do not promote (all of) the best. And they promote, and some bully, on the basis of the Old School Tie or the college gown. The report suggests that the profession does not just have an image problem, it has a real problem.

*This is a joke for the benefit of the sisters and any male crime hacks who wish to self-flagellate in the comments section.

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About Richard Moorhead

Director of the Centre for Ethics and Law and Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at the Faculty of Laws, University College London with an interest in teaching and research on the legal ethics, the professions, legal aid, access to justice and the courts.
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