Sat in the whitewashed basement at BPP Law School, listening to another pep talk about how best to secure a training position at a barristers’ Chambers, I was preparing to quietly doze off in a corner when the female tax barrister who had come to speak to us said something that startled me:
“If you are female, black or older, I’m sorry, but the reality is you’ve got to try harder at the Bar.”
I was incensed. Considered protesting, walking out.
But I decided to stay put. I would stay and do what I could to overcome and then dismantle the wall of prejudice that she had (so apologetically) raised in my face.
My determination to break into this elitist profession crystallised there and then.
Six years on, I’m mostly grateful to her. But many people would have found such statements off-putting. Rather than mould them into some kind of encouraging shape, as I did (after some effort), some would have seen the Bar as an unwelcoming place and chosen a different career path. That troubles me.
In the same week that the heelgate petition racked up over 130,000 signatures even as a petition against the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg was removed after it turned toxic with sexist abuse, I read with concern about the misogyny continually levelled at Charlotte Proudman, the barrister who hit the headlines last year when she confronted Alexander Carter Silk, a partner at law firm Brown Rudnick, after he sent her a sexist message about her “stunning” appearance via Linkedin.
The legal sector’s response to this affair has been largely woeful, from the stream of mansplaining about the correct way Ms Proudman should have responded, to the obsessive trolls in the comments section of Legal Cheek, to the current twitter-based mud-slinging about the quality of her journalistic output, sparked by her recent article in The Telegraph.
Critics say she is writing the same article over and over again. But some repetition is to be expected of a person whose writing is focused on a specific issue. I spent 5 years writing variations on similar themes (the oil and gas sector and its mis-contents). Some of my articles and blog posts are probably repetitive to some readers. But I’ve never been widely attacked for my flaws.
Others have highlighted that her article is an example of bad written advocacy. This misses the point. The article is not a legal submission but an opinion piece for a newspaper. It isn’t Pulitzer-prize winning material. Ms Proudman’s own examples of sexism are far from egregious. But so what? Why single her out and hold her to such impossibly high standards?
Sadly, the backlash against Proudman and the reluctance in some quarters to recognise and address sexism illustrates just how nasty and deep-rooted misogyny is within parts of the legal sector, something that her detractors exemplify and yet fail to see.
The underlying message to young female lawyers is clear:
Be uppity enough to challenge sexism, in particular by publicly challenging the entitlement of white male baby-boomers to pester and grope women, or by expressing your feminist opinions in the press, and we will hound you everywhere you go. In other words, don’t rock the boat, Sweethearts, unless you’d rather drown.
It’s an embarrassment that a minority who hold such regressive attitudes are damaging the reputation of all UK lawyers.
Rather than appeal to your sense of equality or empathy, let me put this in a way most lawyers can actually understand.
Sexism is bad for business, among other things. It is bad for the UK economy. It loses you clients, drives away job applicants and pushes capable people out of the profession. It kills workforce motivation. It lowers the legal profession in the eyes of the public and increases the already high levels of distrust that society reserves for lawyers.
When women take a stand against sexism they should be supported, not attacked or ridiculed.
This isn’t just about responding to sexual harassment with zero-tolerance or stamping out gender-based discrimination. It’s about ensuring that workplace procedures promote equality between the sexes.
More work needs to be done at the Bar to implement uniform and effective maternity and paternity policies, to support women returning from maternity leave, to ensure the equitable distribution of work and where possible to schedule meetings and appointments around childcare and other demands that disproportionately affect women. As long as these issues are neglected, women will probably continue to leave the Bar in droves for better working conditions elsewhere.
I’m writing this blog on a Sunday when I could be spending what little time I have with my family or doing paid work. ‘Frustrating’ doesn’t quite cut it.
If, when my daughter grows older, she starts thinking about becoming a lawyer, I hope the law will be a more welcoming profession than it is now and that I can offer her some words of genuine encouragement.