Tell us a bit about your background.
After qualifying for the Bar and undertaking pupillage, I chose to go to Cambridge to do a Masters in Law for a year. Although I had fully intended to return to the Bar after my LLM, I was then offered a PhD scholarship by Trinity Hall and ended up staying. I undertook my doctorate in mental health law and human rights. During that time, I taught law to many undergraduates, and I continue to lecture and regularly write law articles.
What would you say is your proudest professional achievement and why?
When I returned to London after my PhD and took up my tenancy at the Bar, within a year my Chambers (a small specialist medical set) chose to dissolve. As the most junior barrister (and having spent my first year doing run-around criminal prosecution work and small claims), I had built up no practice and had no solicitors to offer to other sets, all of which were funding their own pupils in training. I was dismayed that none of the other barristers felt obliged to assist the juniors to move elsewhere, and I found myself unable to obtain another tenancy. I had to undergo what was effectively another pupillage (pupillage is rarely fun in the first instance). This was during an extremely pressured period of my life, as my mother had terminal cancer.
A year later I managed to secure another tenancy, but unfortunately no-one else at the set did mental health work, and the promised expansion into this area never came. My clerks did not have links with solicitors in the field and I was left to build up my practice alone. My proudest professional achievement is the fact that I managed to do so with no assistance or support, and within a relatively short space of time became well-regarded in my field and was able to move to a set with a small specialist team of healthcare barristers.
What are the greatest challenges that you have faced to date in your current role? What do you do to overcome them?
My biggest challenges probably relate to dealing with opponents who are unnecessarily aggressive, adversarial and/or rude. I undertake a great deal of Court of Protection work which is meant to be inquisitorial in nature. There are sometimes ethical dilemmas and very often family members (some of whom I represent) who are extremely emotional about the proceedings. Courtesy from others ought to be a given, but unfortunately it is not. However, I believe discourtesy is not gender-related.
There are, of course, also significant pressures relating to deadlines – sometimes created by instructing solicitors who fail to provide documentation and bundles in good time – which can lead to very late nights and a significant lack of sleep. I do work well under pressure, but after a few days of less than six hours’ sleep and long working days, my body starts to shut down. I do not think that this is good for either mental or physical health, but it seems to be part and parcel of the Bar.
How difficult is it for you to attain a work-life balance and what steps do you take towards this?
I find it extremely difficult to attain a good work-life balance. As a self-employed person it is difficult to turn a case down. Furthermore, you often find while you are in court that your clerks have booked you for something else the following day when you expected to be able to catch up on paperwork. I fence for Northern Ireland and trained at quite a high level, but since competing in the Commonwealth Fencing Games in 2006, I simply find that I cannot train sufficiently regularly to warrant competing as much as I did previously. I work approximately two weekends each month, and even if I take a break for sport in the evening, I often have to work again afterwards. I would find it inconceivable to stop work before 6.30pm (and it is usually later), even though many of my clients are local authorities and their offices close at 5.00pm.
I also co-founded a charity in 2008 (Mental Health Research UK, which is the first UK charity dedicated to funding research into the causes of mental illness in order to develop better treatments with fewer side-effects). We are now four Trustees and all of us work full-time; we have no employees to assist us and this takes up a huge amount of my ‘spare’ time. However, I very much believe in the need for the charity and I do my best to make time for it.
Have you ever had a mentor? If so, who were they and how did they help you?
I did not have a mentor while I was studying, although I did have one through Lincoln’s Inn. He provided a reference when I was applying for my various Lincoln’s Inn scholarships (and I obtained numerous scholarships, including one of the coveted accommodation awards, so it obviously did the trick!), and it was good to dine with him on one or two occasions when I was trying to get a feel for the Inn’s idiosyncratic traditions and to feel more like a real-life barrister!
I do recollect being very inspired by Dame Helena Kennedy QC who spoke at the Oxford Union when I was a student. I also read her book, “Eve Was Framed”, which made me determined to be a barrister and to try to make a difference.
How effective do you think corporate diversity initiatives are and what methods do you think are most effective?
I suspect this question is more for solicitors. However, I am supportive of positive discrimination in relation to women in all fields because it seems that if we wait for men to recruit the best candidates and redress the balance without it, we will wait forever! Women obtain far superior results at school and university, yet are still appallingly represented at the highest level in almost every field. The reason is obvious: men are already there, and people hire people like themselves.
Were there any points in your career when you felt you were at a disadvantage or advantage because you were female?
In general I have not felt disadvantaged by being female, although when I undertook pupillage, the Bar was overwhelmingly male. I have also come across misogyny amongst senior clerks and practice managers in several sets of Chambers. One particular set which shall remain nameless was infamous for having ten pupils, all (or almost all) of whom would be tall, slim and attractive young women. The set would rarely take any of them on as tenants; out of about 40 tenants, there were only two women. I also recollect on one occasion during pupillage a QC making a complimentary (but entirely inappropriate) comment about my legs. I did feel at a disadvantage in that instant because I felt so helpless to change things.
What do you think have been the most significant changes for women in the legal industry over the past five years?
In the very high earning areas of law, such as shipping and commercial, there continues to be a huge predominance of men. Part of that is due to men tending to be more attracted to high earnings than women, but in my opinion it is also due to men hiring people like themselves.
In terms of solicitors, I would say that I am instructed by both men and women on an equal basis.
I think that there is a general trait in the female gender for women to doubt themselves, and making it at the Bar requires significant determination. In my view, self-doubt amongst women often makes them go for the more ‘secure’ option of becoming a solicitor. Further, again a generality, but men tend to be higher risk-takers than women and so may be more prepared to pay the vast fees to qualify at the Bar than women, resulting in less women choosing it as a career. That said, I am very glad to see that women are much better represented at the Bar now than when I undertook pupillage.