Focus on the UK Bar: Amanda Yip QC

Amanda Yip QC of Exchange Chambers is a top personal injury and clinical negligence expert who has long been an outspoken advocate for women entering the Bar. Here, she talks to Chambers Women in Law about her career, gender equality at the Bar, maintaining the elusive work/life balance and the usefulness of social media.

Amanda Yip QC

Early Career

Becoming a barrister was always the plan for Amanda Yip: “My dad had been a barrister so I was exposed to the idea from a young age, and I never changed my mind.” The route to personal injury work was a little less straightforward, though. She recalls early on in her career an initial determination to practise in crime, a decision motivated in part by gender expectations. “When I started in chambers, we had the clerks seemed to think women should be more directed towards family law. But it just made me rebel, and I thought, ‘right, I want to do crime’ – which I enjoyed anyway, but there was an element of going against what I was being told to do.”

There were some other encounters with sexism, she notes, but mostly early on in her career. “Early on, I would cover work for other barristers. One case came in involving pornographic videos. The clerks had a fit at the idea of me handling the case,and thought it would be completely inappropriate for me to do! But the barrister whose case it was, who was a man, was fine with it.” Indeed, she hasn’t come across anything too outrageous among fellow barristers, who she reports have always been quite encouraging.

But one of the issues Amanda did experience in the early days of her career was the attitude towards childcare. “People didn’t necessarily expect you to come back after having children. There were a few remarks about part-timers, and a suggestion that some mothers continued work as a kind of hobby, as if it was for pocket money and you’d be supported by your husband.”

A masculine culture – one that Amanda feels is dwindling as time goes on, but still exists to a degree at the Bar – is what leads to this sentiment. “It’s not an old boys’ club, as it’s sometimes seen, but there’s quite a lot of banter around. Also, in a system where you’re self-employed, there’s no formal management or mentoring.” She observes that this masculine culture pervaded the practise of law in other ways at the beginning of her career: “When I started, the few female high court judges tended to portray themselves in a male way; not that they were manly, but they spoke with deep voices, and moulded themselves so they’d fit into that stereotype of a judge.”

Life at the Bar today

This masculine culture hasn’t yet disappeared entirely – and, she says, it can be problematic for the male practitioners, too. “There’s still too much of an element at the Bar of people talking about how hard they’re working through the weekend, and late at night, and in some ways, it’s easier for a women to get off that merry-go-round. In terms of family, I’ve seen men in the clerk’s room asking for time out to go to a school event and being mocked for it. It’s banter, and not meant very seriously, but it can be hard for a man to say, ‘this is important, this is my family’.” Such pressures impact both genders: “it’s impossible for us to say we have full equality until childcare is a shared responsibility and men are taken seriously in making time for family, and supporting women.”

Amanda admits she still comes across sexist attitudes occasionally, although “sometimes you don’t notice it; or maybe you get used to it.” One recent incident stands out in her mind. She sits as a deputy high court judge, and recalls one case in which she had to get particularly tough: “I was telling a senior judge about this, and he asked, ‘can you be tough?’ and I thought, you wouldn’t have said that if I was a man!” But she’s quick to note that this isn’t the pervading attitude: “I’ve never felt unwelcome at the Bar and I think things have changed since I began.”

What the future holds

Change is happening, then, albeit gradually. Amanda is optimistic about the increase in women at the Bar at both junior and senior levels, which has helped to provide role models and adjust expectations when it comes to matters such as maternity leave or career breaks. In 2014, 18 out of 100 of the appointed QCs were female, creating a proportional rise of 17% in the number of female appointments – but at the same time, the success rate of women taking silk, when compared to number of women who applied, was at its lowest since 2008. The vast majority of QCs are still men. Amanda suggests that at least in part it could be a matter of choice, but that also that there could be “still something of a confidence issue, which is also a problem for women outside of the law. There are some women who don’t put themselves forward for silk who are as good as men who do. There needs to be more encouragement to do that – more mentoring, more support.”

Amanda believes the changes to the process of applying for QC have certainly helped improve matters. “Where we’re getting it right in law now is the move towards a more formal application process with evidence-based criteria, as opposed to a vague notion of ‘good enough’. It encouraged me to apply. I don’t want to generalise, but women can be more self-critical, and to check against specific criteria makes it easier and fairer.”

But there is still work to be done, and Amanda says recognising this is important. “We haven’t had a Lady Chief Justice so far, and the highest positions in the judiciary are still male-dominated.” And of course, there are broader questions about diversity, in terms of race and social class as well as gender. “More needs to be done to address that,” she acknowledges, “I think because there are more women at the Bar now, the situation has gained momentum in terms of moving towards gender equality.” Widening inclusivity, and encouraging people from poorer backgrounds, can be a little harder to negotiate. Class in particular can be a complex issues, especially as it is something that some people feel can change over a lifetime: “I was debating about this with my husband, who is from a working-class background; with his current job, and current salary, he was wondering if he could still call himself working class.” And, of course, class is less visible, making it slightly more complicated to seek out role models: “I think people need to assert their background – to help people aspire.” While in the future the situation seems likely to get better, legal aid cuts might create more problems. “It tends to be the areas of law where people are heavily reliant on legal aid that have a more diverse selection of barristers – more women, more people from ethnic minorities.”

Amanda Yip and family
Amanda Yip and family

Family and career: the work/life balance

In terms of her own career, family has played a big part – maintaining the work/life balance is something Amanda often writes about on her blog. A career as a criminal barrister became less appealing as she began to think increasingly about family, as she notes, “I realised crime would involve me being in court all day every day, and I wanted more balance. With personal injury, you can operate at a high level but be more flexible in how you organise your practice. It was a dual thing: personal injury law interested me, and it would give me a better work/life balance.”

Family has impacted her career in various ways, including helping it along. When asked if there was a turning point in her career, Amanda recollects: “as I became busier and my career was picking up, I began to feel I was losing the balance between family and work. I consciously dropped off the lower-value claims, and prioritised the more complex, higher value work. Possibly I wouldn’t have done that without that desire for balance – it allowed my career to keep stepping forward, and it allowed people to see me as a specialist in high value claims, which developed my practice to then apply for silk.”

Being a mother has been key to her practice in other ways, too. “I’ve done a lot of child brain injury cases, I think it’s something I’ve become known for, and I think solicitors have seen my interaction and understanding with mothers as being important to that, as it tends to be mothers you’re dealing with. You understand the pressures on mothers generally, and have to sympathise with someone who you know will be putting pressure on themselves to be a perfect mother in that situation.” It is that pressure in particular that she can identify with: “for things like recruiting carers into the family – a lot of people haven’t looked for childcare before, and although I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to deal with disability at home, I know what it’s like to need someone to help you look after your precious children – the worry of letting go, and the trust involved in that.”

Understanding the pressures placed on mothers – especially mothers working in the law – has also led to Amanda setting up her blog. Amanda discusses elements of personal injury and clinical negligence law in her posts, but is also particularly interested “in talking about the work/life balance, in sharing experiences and trying to encourage other people,” especially women, to see that as a possibility. She’s a big fan of social media, and a regular Twitter user since she took silk. She rejected the idea of Twitter initially, thinking of it as some kind of self-advertising – “but actually it’s a great way to stay in touch quickly and easily. And there’s so much soft marketing that goes on at Bar events and drinks that can be difficult to get to – it’s really great for handling that while doing something else, cooking the tea or from wherever you are!”

I ask Amanda if she has any final advice for women looking to start a career in the law. “Really just go for it, and don’t spend as much time worrying as I did! I spent such a lot of time worrying: about how my career would turn out, if I would be a good enough mother. If you’re getting on with it, and enjoying what you’re doing, it’ll turn out alright in the end.”

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