Solving the Retention Crisis for Women in Law: The Profession’s rude awakening after a half century sleep walk

Solving the Retention Crisis for Women in Law: The Profession’s rude awakening after a half century sleep walk

International Women’s Day, March 8th 2019

There is much to celebrate today, International Women’s Day 2019, reflecting on the last 100 years of women in law. I was at the Temple Women’s Forum last week, doing precisely that, with the likes of Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Dana Denis- Smith and Maggie Semple. A female President of the Supreme Court; more women than ever before entering the profession; and accessibility to groups, such as the Forum, Women in the Law UK and Women in Criminal Law, seemingly at an all-time high, to support, upskill and mentor female lawyers.

And yet there is still a huge way to go.

Retention Rates

Retention rates for female talent remain low: 52% of new entrants to the solicitors profession are women, down to 29% at partner level, and just 19 % equity partners. That’s not to mention the disparity in numbers of female Silks (15%), Judges (28%) and Court of Appeal Judges (21%).

Here I consider the challenges to further progress for women in law, and make suggestions to support a significant cultural shift, both externally as well as from within the legal profession, which involves men AND women equally.


Working Parents

If you haven’t yet, read The Western Circuit Women’s Forum “Back to the Bar” Survey. It examines “what makes it possible or impossible for parents to return to the bar after parental leave” ( Some of the findings were discussed on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour (  Ever since its’ publication,  pretty much every report, tweet and media comment I’ve read about a female lawyer’s life reveals a daily, and often overwhelming,  struggle for career survival, never mind progression.

Almost two thirds of those who left the Bar on that Circuit over a 6 year period were women, most citing difficulties balancing work and family commitments as a determining factor in that decision. Those remaining did so with the assistance of significant shared care with partners or family members. Flexible working arrangements were also important, the availability of which depended on the Chambers you were in, the clerking teams’ ability to break from tradition, and whether your practice was court based or not. The countless personal stories are as heart-wrenching as they are compelling; talented, successful women thrown to the long grass due to the incompatible demands of career and home life. I related to each and every one.

My own experiences add grist to the mill. On return from my second maternity leave having taken an extended 12 month period, personal confidence levels were low, and so I requested a “gentle return” back into the adversarial world of Crown Court crime. I was seeking the Bar’s equivalent of a phased return. Instead, a baptism of fire. A wounding with intent case where the defendant had broken a glass and twisted it into the face of the complainant who consequently suffered life changing injuries; a murder trial; a rape trial where the defendant I represented was a child, aged 13. This example exposes the lack of understanding by Chambers as to how to manage any degree of flexible working outside the usual, traditional clerking approach.

Likewise, whilst heavily pregnant with my third child, a last-minute case was returnedto me by my clerks from another set of Chambers. It was a serious sexual abuse re-trial for the Prosecution with multiple complainants. Papers more than two feet deep, the pink briefribbon barely holding them together due to their sheer weight and volume, were couriered to my home address late after the closeof business. There was no indictment, no case opening and around 8 DVD recordings, each over 1 hour long, containing the evidence from child complainants. I would have to consider them and be ready for a clean start the next morning, complete with Indictment and Opening, in a non-local court, travel time, 4 hour round trip. I had only 2 weeks left to work before maternity leave commenced and 2 other children at home, aged 16months and 2 years old. My husband worked away and I had no local childcare. I said “No”. For the first time in sixteen years of practice, I refused to take a brief. A combination of lack of thought, understanding and communication on behalf of the clerks left me with no choice.

These 2 experiences in the space of just 7 months were, for me, the beginning of the end.

Judicial Bullying

More insidious obstacles were brought to the public’s attention 11thFeb. 2019. The Chair of the Criminal Bar Association’s Monday Message that day was entitled “The Problem with being a woman at the Criminal Bar”: ( The article would have been more accurately entitled “The problemS.” It didn’t just concern career break-returners. Chris Henley QC raised, amongst a litany of other challenges, the spectre of abuse of power by Judges, impacting upon all counsel, and women in particular, together with the consequent impact on well-being and morale. “It is little wonder that so many women (and men) are turning away from the criminal bar” he said;  “the environment is increasingly hostile.”

Even new and welcome initiatives, such as The Bar Council’s Feb. 2019 Guide: “Advice to the Bar about bullying by judges” reveal a profession only now waking up to reality after a half century sleepwalk. ( The judicial abuse of power has been tolerated by the Bar for years, described recently by a senior silk as the profession’s “dirty little secret,” to be joked about at Mess Dinners where offensive nomenclatures are bestowed upon offending characters, but no formal complaints procedure ever widely or effectively invoked. And here I see one of the major problems: The old boy’s network. The “revels”, or after- dinner speeches, the domain of men, using humour and bravado to laugh off and excuse reportable conduct.

My experience in pupillage of one particular judge set the tone for 16 years’ worth of ill behaviour: “Your argument is worse than that of a child in a school playground”, he said. Senior practitioners present at the time offered a supportive ear and remarked specifically about the unfairness of the comment, and agreed it had been designed to humiliate. But neither they nor I “called it out” at the time, publicly in court, or raised complaint through formal channels, due to the delicacies of self-employment/ reputational damage and the sensitivity of client- counsel relations/ client confidence. I’ve been complicit in this too; staying silent when the worst offenders turned their vile attention on others, grateful that their poor conduct was pointing elsewhere than in my own direction.


A day after the Monday Message, Criminal barrister Joanna Hardy’s tweet about these issues “went viral.” What was interesting was that she offered a multitude of sensible and workable solutions to some of the many well documented challenges faced by women at the Criminal Bar: Abolishing 9.30am listings and warned lists to aid those with caring responsibilities; supporting fellow females through kindness; improving Chambers maternity policies; introducing mentoring schemes to name but a few. And yet the media attention honed in on the “stag do behaviour” of men towards female colleagues. provided a depressing insider view of a male dominated, inherently sexist culture, and one in which women are disadvantaged, their needs overlooked in particular due to traditional court listing practices/ hearing times and the behaviour of the “old boys network”.

This macho culture isn’t hard to recognise or spot. I worked for well over a decade in an environment tolerating bad behaviour by a number of more senior male colleagues towards myself and others simply because “that’s just the way it was,” preferring not to be singled out as a trouble maker. During a case as a junior, being led by a senior barrister, in response to my editing proposals for a police interview, I was sent by email a sexual fantasy of his. At a case dinner, I was subjected to a lewd proposition by a man well over 30 years senior to myself. Seeing it now, I accept being a protagonist to the problem. Again, I never spoke out, even when a former partner made it perfectly plain to me that in any other walk of life, conduct such as this would be a disciplinary matter, especially when I had evidence to prove it.

Unconscious Bias

Based on my own experiences when in practice, and now coaching female lawyers still exposed to the negative effects of this toxic, male-dominated environment, I recognise that it will take some seriously creative, positive and controversial thinking to avoid women feeling utterly hopeless/ helpless about their futures in law. Even last week, enjoying a drink at the Inns of Court before the Forum event, I noted the bar walls draped with 21 paintings of male barristers/ judges of yesteryear. Not one single one featured a woman.


Internal Culture

History is the past. The traditional business model of law firms is based on the army hierarchy 100 years ago. And yet we are here now in 2019, still losing women left, right and centre, haemorrhaging talent. This exodus will continue until there is profession-wide acknowledgement of its negative impact, rather than adopting the convenient “that’s just the way it is” attitude. It’s here that the key to unlocking the elusive, and as yet untried, solution can be found. Massive, ground- breaking, cultural change from within– eradicating the old boys network in relation to unconscious bias as well as blatant sexism, re-training clerks to challenge traditional concepts around case allocation and working practices, and reducing or removing the “time-based targets” model within law firms which tend to work against a woman.

Time Based Business Model

In the bigger Corporates retaining this “time-based target” model, there will always remain a disconnect between employer and female employee, (possibly male too). Whilst ever a hot house mentality is promoted by firms, at the expense of work/ life boundaries, a lack of shared vision or congruent goals, and between values and beliefs, means working practices will keep coming up short for employees. Women (and, with the increasing awareness of Wellness within the workplace, men) will continue to leave.

Flexible Working Practices

An effective antidote is witnessing the success of “role model” lawyers and firms embracing more modern working practices. Gunner Cook are already, for example, successfully adopting more flexible practices. Much still needs to be done however to convince all law firms and Chambers of the benefits: Coinciding with a new CIPD report, the Flexible Working Task Force recently had to launch a campaign (Jan. 2019) to boost flexible working, as uptake has stalled for nearly a decade.

Similarly, support for flexible and affordable childcare options around The Temple in London and at Combined Court Centres have been mooted but still remain untested.

Women “Doing it for themselves”

We are seeing a rise in women either opening their own firms (I can readily think of 3 doing so successfully in Yorkshire) or working on a consultancy basis e.g. Through companies like Obelisk Support.  Those who have the courage to be confident and take a leap, talk persuasively about reaping the benefits. These include not only the ability to work more flexibly, but crucially retaining control over their own legal destinies. The more women doing so, and vocally, the more their reasons and motivations for doing so will be heard, understood and replicated.

External, Societal Change

External, societal change is also needed. A former colleague, recently appointed to the Bench, often remarked how she felt she had done a full day’s work even before leaving the house to conduct her very senior barrister day-job. She is not alone. In Britain in 2016, according to the Office for National Statistics, women did almost 60% more of the unpaid work, on average, than men. Are we having the right conversations at home to equally split household chores and childcare responsibilities? Just as women struggle shouldering a multitude of domestic burdens and are consequently held back in their careers, men struggle equally, yet differently, frequently with huge financial expectations upon them and little dialogue around the impact on them of stress or missing out on seeing their children grow up. Starting these hard conversations will engender a united approach to developing solutions, which currently appear elusive.

The answer clearly lies in men AND women seeking to eradicate the barriers for women and encourage a level playing field for ALL. Making it a male/ female issue has so far been counterproductive. If flexibility is made accessible, and equality made attractive, to ALL, then progress will surely be expedited and the legal profession be shaken from its sleep. To do otherwise is to perpetuate a crisis which shows little sign of abating.

Nikki Alderson is a former criminal barrister, now Corporate and Executive Coach supporting law firms and Chambers to attract and retain female talent within the legal profession and empowering female lawyers to achieve career ambitions whilst creating congruent lives. Having gained great insights into the responsibilities, pressures and “expected” career paths of those, particularly women, working in law, Nikki sees a challenge within the profession, which she hopes to address through coaching, of retaining talented women role models, given the dearth of women in senior partnership roles and within the judiciary

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