Today is International Women’s Day, based on the theme #BreakTheBias. Here we highlight one of our recent posts on the topic of Women in Law and celebrate the contribution made by women to 18 St John Street Chambers.
18 St John Street are immensely proud of our equality and diversity. We became a female majority chambers in 2021, one of the few in the country. This is testament to the hard work over the last 100 years of some incredible women in the law, along with the talent and hard work of our own female members and staff which has seen 18 St John Street continue to go from strength to strength.
The 2022 International Women’s day marks a year long celebration. We will embrace the #BreakTheBias theme for this year and will provide the exceptional advice, advocacy and client care which sees chambers continue to develop and reach new nights.
To mark International Women’s Day 2022, we highlight one of our recent posts on the topic of Women in Law where several members of chambers and support staff gave insight into their own personal experiences of trying to #BreakTheBias
Victoria Empson, of 18 St John Street, says: ‘As I practice in business and property, I’m often the only woman in the courtroom. There might be a male judge, a male opponent and all male parties. I once had a male defendant call me “babe” repeatedly while I cross-examined him, in a room full of significantly older men. Neither the judge nor my opponent suggested it wasn’t the appropriate way to address me, and I look forward to that sort of thing changing in the future. Having said that, I’m not sure it helped how the Judge viewed him in the long run, so it was possibly to my client’s benefit that I was a woman!’
Samantha Birtles, one of our specialist family Barristers, has shared her story: ‘When I joined 18 St John Street as a pupil in 1989, I was one of only 4 women in chambers. The profession was a very different place at that time. I was the first and only of those women to have a baby while working as a barrister and felt under tremendous pressure to have as little time off as possible. I enjoyed a full 2 days off before my baby was born, and 4 months off afterwards. Not ideal, but a reflection of the pressure to prove myself in a male dominated world.
I am delighted that 18 St John Street now has so many female members and that we have created a working environment where women can enjoy a successful career whilst bringing up a family. I would encourage women to join chambers as there is the potential to do extremely well, while enjoying the flexibility of self-employment and some working from home. We now have members who work part time which is a great option.’
Our own Sarah Wait says: ‘I think things have changed a great deal, for the better, at the Bar relatively recently. That is not to say that more does not need to be done, but I certainly haven’t felt outnumbered during my time in the profession. There are so many fantastic female role models for me, both within 18SJS, on the Northern Circuit and at the Bar more generally that I honestly haven’t felt additional pressure from being a female barrister, other than to live up to the amazing women barristers who have gone before me!
I think retention of women at the Bar is an area in which much more needs to be done, generally speaking. This ranges from having female friendly policies in chambers to taking action to put female barristers, who have taken career breaks for maternity/childcare reasons, on a level playing field with their male colleagues when seeking judicial or Silk appointments. At the moment this seems to be left to chambers on an individual basis, which is great in a forward thinking and supportive set like 18SJS, but perhaps not as great for others and I think more must be done across the board and at a higher level.’
18 St John Street’s Yvonne Healing‘s story: ‘The first time I thought of becoming a barrister was when I was fourteen years old. I witnessed an assault which went to trial in the magistrate’s court. I gave evidence. I loved the whole event – the atmosphere and the structure of the system. When I joined the Bar in 1987 all chambers had a token woman. That was what we were called! I was in fact the second woman to join my chambers (Sunlight House). I was treated as a strange being by most members of chambers. The fact that I was female was brought up almost every day. I know that I would deal with it all very differently now, because I have much greater experience and confidence, but I used to fell belittled and intimidated by it all. Attitudes, thankfully, have changed beyond recognition.
At first we women were not allowed to wear trousers to court. I remember the day when the rules changed, and rushing out to buy a trouser suit.
18 St John Street’s Senior Family Clerk, Camille Scott has shared her story:
‘I started as a junior clerk in London 20 years ago. At that time I was the only female member of staff in Chambers and it was clear that being a female clerk was unusual. When I left, one of the more old fashioned members of chambers said: “Thank you, you were a good clerk for a girl”.
I then moved to a much bigger chambers and again was the only female clerk but this time in a much bigger clerks room and it was tough. It was more apparent that I was looked down on for being female, at least by the other clerks. A few years later, I moved on to another chambers with an even bigger clerks room, but with another female clerk! Things were very different there and I was very much part of the team.
When I decided to move back up North I was scared and worried, but I knew I really wanted to. I couldn’t believe it when I walked into 18SJS and there were multiple women in the clerks room. And speaking to other chambers, it was clear that they also had female clerks. I couldn’t believe it – Manchester was way ahead of the London sets. I was no longer a minority. I worked hard and quickly became head/senior clerk of the family team and the next big step was having a family myself. When I had first started as a clerk, that would have been impossible – it was career or family but now I can do both.
I think my experience has made me who I am. I feel that being female definitely made my job harder in the beginning I am now very proud of where I am, as are my family. Now it doesn’t matter that I am female – I am a senior clerk and that is it.’
Chambers Manager at 18 St John Street Emma Bowie says:
‘From working in a Solicitors for years to now being a Chambers Manager, I have witnessed a huge increase of women in the legal profession – which is brilliant. Of course, there is still a certain level of inequality at the bar but things are changing and I am very pleased to have witnessed such an increase of women in law. And I’m incredibly proud to be where I am now.’
To read our most recent blog post about Women In Law please click here https://www.18sjs.com/celebrating-women-in-law/