Women Family Lawyers
(As an amusing aside, when I searched for images of female judges, the first picture I got was of Cheryl Cole)!
Lord Sumption is making headlines today for his views on women judges.
At Lawyers Life we’ve been quietly eliciting the views of small focus groups from different sectors of the legal profession for some time now. A fuller report will appear in due course but some initial findings from detailed discussions with female lawyers from the world of Family law are set out below.
Lawyers life interviewed 50 female barristers and solicitors practicing Family Law. The women were from different age groups and stages of practice. They from a range of ethnic backgrounds and were either practicing from chambers or working in law firms. This is part 1 of what they had to say : (more to come later)
Not one of the women interviewed said that she felt her gender would hold her back from holding a judicial position should she choose to pursue one. A number said they intended to apply in due course for a judicial post and felt confident they would be selected on merit and their gender would not be an obstacle. In fact several suggested their gender might be in their favour.
One very experienced barrister said, ‘ there’s no impediment to getting on the bench. In fact, I think I’m more likely to. All my female contemporaries who wanted to sit, got the job.’
One solicitor noted wryly that ‘being a woman is not an impediment to becoming a judge but being a mother is. Women have to take the responsibility for the children. No-one says it, it’s just expected. you take the responsibility on yourself because your husband won’t.’
Views on current women Judges
A recurring complaint was that some women judges treat male and female advocates differently. Those interviewees who had not had a bad experience personally with a female judge said they knew female colleagues who had.
The common complaint was that some female judges simply don’t like female advocates and will make this clear through a dismissive attitude, snide remarks or plain rudeness. it was particularly noticeable if a male advocate was openly treated with more courtesy.
One young solicitor noted that her boyfriend, also a lawyer, had noticed the harsh way a female judge treated his female colleagues compared to the way she treated him. He told our interviewee that it was ‘very noticeable’ and it bothered him.
A barrister of 5 years call said that ‘a handful of women judges are really hard on women advocates, especially the younger ones.’
She said that she liked to believe that this was because they remembered how hard it had been for them to come up in the profession so maybe they ‘want to make you better. If you come up against them again, you will do your absolute best, so it’s an education.’
However, she acknowledged that ‘some just discourage you. There aren’t many of those but I suppose they had it hard and feel the need to take it out on you. Maybe they want to remind you how hard it is and how competitive the profession is.’
Others were less understanding. The same names kept cropping up of female judges who are unpleasant to women advocates. ‘Catty, petty remarks throughout the case directed at me, impatient sighs whenever I started to speak, just rude,’ said one barrister of a female judge about whom everyone either had a bad story or had heard one about.
A number of interviewees noted that these difficult judges were susceptible to male charm/flattery. One junior barrister queried whether the semi flirtatious behaviour of some male advocates occurred because they sensed a ‘competitive advantage because men are increasingly in the minority in family law?’
Although few in number the impact of these difficult female judges seemed to have been felt by many of those interviewed. A common comment was, ‘she doesn’t seem to like women. ‘
All the interviewees suggested that it would be much better if women at the top helped those who come after them.
The interviewees were also quick to name those female judges who are seen as excellent ‘role models’ for both other judges and advocates.
Mrs Justice Theis was singled out for particular praise.
Male / Female ratio in Family Law
All the advocates interviewed said that family law was increasingly female heavy.
A barrister who has been practicing since the 1970s said that she had been offered a tenancy at one set of chambers on condition that she practiced family law. ‘ I wanted to do crime, so I didn’t take it. instead i went away and had my children. When I returned to the Bar, I decided to do Family law because I actually wanted to not because it was expected of me as a woman. I thought it was genuinely an exciting area of law and one in which there would be new developments as society changed.’
She went on to say that she didn’t think a female dominated family law profession was particularly desirable. ‘It’s healthier to have both sexes. It’s not an ‘easy’ area of the law at all. It’s very dynamic. Family cases involve both men and women, so the legal representation should reflect that. It must be pretty oppressive for a father in a case to see only women in the case. If it wasn’t right for women in the past to be the only woman in the courtroom, it can’t be right for a man now.’
A younger barrister said she was not happy as a family lawyer. The workload and lifestyle was not what she had expected and the remuneration for the very long hours was poor. ‘The stress does not correlate to the financial rewards, or lack of. If I had my time again I would not choose this area of law. The misery of the average care case is not what most people think of when they imagine a lawyer’s life. If you think it’s profession that will bring you stability and satisfaction and rewards, think again. If I didn’t have a partner, I’d never have time to meet someone because the hours are so long and there are so few men in family law. There’s no element of glamour or socializing. It’s just lugging heavy bags around all day and then going home exhausted. ‘
Another family lawyer commented that ‘starting a family is not financially viable for me at present. And even if I have children, I can’t imagine being able to care for them if I continue with a busy practice.’
A solicitor commented that women are more assertive and therefore right for family law which requires quick fire thinking and responses. ‘The men in my office are too laid back. The women get the job done and still have time to check out the showbiz page on the Daily Mail website! Women are more patient with clients too. We communicate better with troubled people. We’re softer with difficult clients but harder at the same time. We take instructions from them but also give them firm advice when needed.’
Another solicitor noted that while the bulk of her office was made up of women, the head of the family department was male.
At court, some interviewees said they have more difficulties dealing with other female advocates but added that they can also compromise more with women. Men, they said, tend to be more arrogant with a ‘this is my position, take it or leave it,’ stance.
Most of the interviewees complained about the long hours and the emotional investment in family cases. One solicitor noted that, ‘ male colleagues get sick of the emotional baggage of family law. They are more likely to consider other options. Women tend to stay in family.’
One Local Authority solicitor commented that her job fits in with her own family’s needs. ‘A man wouldn’t be expected to think of that. He’d get a job in another city and commute because it was a better position. For me my children were a real consideration. I would have had a different career if I didn’t have children. A man’s career is still seen as more important.’