Lawyers Life spoke to a group of female family lawyers about a range of topics to do with their experiences of practising family law over a span of 20 years. It was striking how much the women had to say, remarking that no-one had sought their views before. Sadly, little of it was positive.
Almost all said they ‘hated’ the job and if they had their time again would never choose to practice family law.
The biggest gripe was how demanding the job was.
‘You could work at it 24/7, 365 days a year and it would still not be enough. There would still be a bundle of papers somewhere that you had not read.’
‘I feel I’ve served a longer and harsher sentence doing this work than most of my child abuser clients do for committing unspeakable crimes!’
‘Some days I even momentarily think I’d like to be diagnosed with something terrible just so I could legitimately take time off!’
All the women hated the hours they had to put in. They disliked the way the job ate into their social, personal and family lives.
One barrister railed against the lack of care for practitioners within the profession. ‘There’s nothing for us. I was heavily pregnant and a case of mine went part heard. I was expected to come back for the hearing regardless of what state I was in on the return date. When I went through menopause there was a similar lack of understanding. I wasn’t sleeping, I couldn’t focus on anything, I was sweating like crazy and having hot flushes but I couldn’t imagine asking my clerks to let me take time out. they wouldn’t haves stood for it. Nor would the court if I wanted a break from the case. We’re expected to perform at our best no matter how shitty we feel or what we’re going through.
What we need as women lawyers is a drop in centre where we can talk through issues like child care or not being on top of your game because you’ve been up all night with a sick child.’
A younger barrister noted that all the other female friends she had been called to the bar with had since left the profession. ‘They hated the hours and the unrelenting nature of the job. And there’s so little reward.’
Dream alternative jobs
Running a tea shop was the favourite.
‘Anything that wasn’t so relentless’ was a popular choice.
However, most of those dreaming of getting out of the profession had been doing exactly that for years. They had no realistic alternatives lined up. Most scoured the jobs pages of the Times with little real enthusiasm. Despite grumbling about the pay in the legal profession, most agreed that it would be hard to find a job that paid equally well and promised a similar intellectual satisfaction. Then there was the ‘prestige’ factor. All the women admitted that they enjoyed the kudos of being a solicitor or barrister – it signified a level of achievement and intelligence that few other careers could match.
Becoming a Judge
Again, none of the women felt their gender was a barrier to them becoming judges at any level.
However, one participant expressed concern that the selection process is too clinical. ‘The testing is all multiple choice questions, there’s no room for your personality to come through and women are a lot to do with personality. Family law requires skills beyond advocacy, it’s about managing clients, it’s about not being antagonistic or aggressive but finding a common ground. the questions you get asked don’t allow for any of that to come through. Is the selection process gender biased or simply put together by men?
There should be provision for assessing personal skills.’
Others agreed that the testing should seek to move candidates from logical thinking to creative thinking and back again. ‘You would get better judges then, probably more women.’
Once again the discussion started well with names of admired female judges but quickly moved to those who are disliked for being unnecessarily rude and petty. The bad experiences each woman had had with a woman judge seemed to stick with them far more than the good ones.
There was a lot of heated emotion when disclosing the behaviour of some women on the bench.
‘I’ve known lawyers of both sexes who have considered leaving the profession due to judicial bullying,’ fumed one barrister. ‘No other job allows this level of intimidation and rudeness to go unmanaged. We have no recourse to any body to help us. Yes, you can technically complain but you blot your copybook.
I remember when I was very new being so bullied I momentarily lost the ability to think. We are expected to accept an unacceptable level of rudeness and we can’t answer back when we’re being lambasted. In other jobs you can go to a manager or senior person, not at the Bar.’
Another participant said some women judges ‘ooze’ over a male advocate but patronize the females. ‘Being patronized by a woman, that, I didn’t expect. So, now when I’m in front of a woman judge my antennae automatically go up. I expect to be probed to see if I’m any good and to be ripped apart if she thinks I’m not.’
‘The angry woman judge exists,’ opined another participant. ‘She doesn’t do herself or other women any favours. I tell myself some women judges are difficult to make you a better advocate but the more I see of them, the more I think they just have a personality disorder!’
However, a barrister of 20 years call said ‘it’s not an issue of sex, often, just an issue of personality. It’s what side of the bed they got out of that morning. I’ve seen judges of both sexes be vile to advocates of both sexes and it’s nothing about being constructive or making them better lawyers. They just want to humiliate someone and they know there’s little to no accountability. Then again, it should not require complaints to make a judge judicial.
The problem is that when judges of either sex behave badly, you don’t know whether their issue is with you personally or your case. I don’t compare myself to the male advocate in the case if I’m being bullied. We’re all just advocates, in my opinion, not men versus women. I’m not better or worse skilled than a man. Female judges, however, are alpha females generally. If she’s being vile, she’s just acting like an alpha female over female minions, rather than just a woman being mean. If she had a real sense of self or humour she wouldn’t feel the need to behave like that.
Like some of the women judges, senior women partners in law firms came under fire too.
‘The senior partner in our firm, ‘ said one solicitor , ‘ is a woman in her 60s. She doesn’t like most women. Her standards for herself are extraordinarily high and she expects that of other women. She can’t be sympathetic to women with children, for example, because she doesn’t have any of her own. People see her as hard, cold and judgmental.’
Another lawyer was more sympathetic towards her female boss. ‘People make assumptions about very successful women that they don’t about men. For example, everyone assumes my boss has a husband and children. She doesn’t. We have preconceived views about what women should have done with their lives by a certain age. We don’t with men. Similarly, we expect women to be kinder and some just aren’t. So, we’re shocked.’
Once again Lady justice Theis was praised as an excellent example of a female judge. ‘She gains nothing from her courtesy towards female advocates but we gain tons from it.’
‘Nothing less than a suit is right for an advocate in the courtroom. Not even a smart dress, it should be a formal jacket and dress or a suit.’
‘In black, charcoal or navy.’
‘Standards have definitely down amongst women.’
‘You need a clear distinction between client and lawyer.’
‘Discreet makeup. No garish jewellery. you should not blur the boundaries between a professional look and a social one.’
‘I have my ‘fighting lipstick’ and heels for the big cases. If I have a big money case with a professional client I wear makeup and heels. If I’m representing grandparents in a care case, I’ll dress plainly.’