Among the many eye-catching sessions at this year’s Annual Bar and Young Bar Conference is a panel event that will shine a light on working practices at the Bar and discuss developments in recruitment and retention.
A lot has changed at the Bar over the last 30 years or so – not least the size of the profession, which stood at 9,541 barristers in 1990/91 but grew to 17,351 by 2019/20. And close attention is being paid to changes in the numbers of female practitioners and barristers from ethnic minority backgrounds, who have traditionally been under-represented.
It is also clear that discussions around flexible and remote working have come to the fore in recent years.
Ahead of the panel debate 'Careers, retention and the modernisation of working practices at the Bar’ on Saturday 26 November, here we highlight some key statistics to give an indication as to how the Bar has changed – and is changing – over time.
The Bar is becoming more demographically representative of the population
The proportion of women at the Bar has almost doubled since 1990, from 21.6% to 38.1% in 2020. In 1990, there were 2,058 practising female barristers; in 2020, the figure was 6,679. And looking at pupillage statistics, roughly equal numbers of men and women have been taken on since 2000.
The proportion of pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds increased by 5% between the 1990/91-1994/95 period and the 2015/16-2019/20 period (from 13.8% to 18.8% on average), but with varying trends for ethnic groups within this broader category.
For example, in that same timeframe, the proportion of pupils from Asian/Asian British backgrounds has grown from 6.3% to 9.5%. But looking at the proportion of pupils from Black/Black British backgrounds, the figure has remained the same (3.8%) for nearly 30 years.
The average age of barristers has risen
The average age of practising barristers has risen by eight years in the space of three decades. In 1990/91, the average age was 38.5, and by 2019/20 it was 46.5.
Meanwhile, looking at pupillage data, the average age of pupils has increased over time too. In 1990/91, the average age of pupils by the financial year of pupillage start was 27.2. That rose to 28.1 in 2011/12 and then to 28.5 in 2019/20.
Towards the other end of the age scale, we can look at the proportion of practising barristers aged over 65. Until 2004/5, this figure was 2% or less – but in 2019/20, barristers aged over 65 made up 7.8% of the practising Bar.
Recruitment appears to have recovered to pre-pandemic levels
The Pupillage Gateway is a recruitment portal used by aspiring barristers, and the latest statistics have recently been published.
The number of pupillages advertised to start in 2022/23 stood at 486 – compared with 490 in 2019/20 – which suggests that vacancies have recovered to pre-pandemic levels.
Other key points in this year’s Pupillage Gateway report include the finding that candidates with a first-class degree were 2.4 times more likely to receive an offer compared with those who attained upper second-class honours.
The report also found that there is nothing to suggest that those who have not studied law at undergraduate level are at a disadvantage in attaining pupillage.
Some barristers want to do more remote working
One in four barristers who took part in the Barristers’ Working Lives Survey 2021 reported they were happy with their working arrangements and there was nothing they would like to change.
Among those who did want to make changes, more remote working was the most commonly mentioned future change (60% of those who wanted to make changes). The second-most common change was flexible working (42%), followed by leaving the Bar (21%), working part-time (17%) and doing less legal aid work (17%).
At the time of the survey, nearly one in five barristers (19%) reported having a flexible working arrangement in place, although there was a lot of variation depending on work and personal characteristics.
Barristers with a flexible working arrangement had higher scores on many of the survey’s wellbeing factors.
Women are still leaving practice prematurely in greater numbers than men
Looking at barristers who started their practice in the early 1990s, around 24% of male barristers had left practice before year 15, compared with around 35% of female barristers.
For those starting practice during the five-year period from 2002 to 2007, the figure was around 20% for men and 27% for women.
Female barristers aged below 30 are generally more likely than male barristers in the same age range to have stopped practising during year five, and more likely to have left practice indefinitely before year five.
A Bar Council report about the experiences of women at the self-employed Bar, published in 2014/15, suggested reasons why this might be the case. The authors wrote: “The most significant challenges [for female barristers] were avoiding being pushed into certain types of work and balancing career and caring responsibilities. These challenges may play a large part in the high attrition rate; many women leave the Bar after becoming parents and do not return.”
Career progression is spread unevenly across different groups
Statistics on King's Counsel (KC) and judges reveal which groups are under-represented in those ranks.
Men by far outnumber women in terms of taking silk, with the proportion of women KCs standing at just 17.9% in December 2021. The Race at the Bar report, from November 2021, showed that there were only five Black female QCs (as was) at the time of publication and they were all based in London.
As for judges, while the proportion of Asian and mixed ethnicity individuals in the judiciary has slowly increased since 2014, the proportion of Black and other ethnic minority judges has stayed the same in that time.
Careers, retention and the modernisation of working practices
So it's clear how the profession has been changing, but will these trends continue into the future?
On Saturday 26 November, Shadow Solicitor General Andy Slaughter MP will chair ‘Careers, retention and the modernisation of working practices at the Bar’ with a fantastic panel: Jacob Hallam KC (6 King's Bench Walk and Chair of the Bar Council's Education and Training Committee), Susanna McGibbon (Treasury Solicitor, Government Legal Department), Fiona Rutherford (Chief Executive, JUSTICE) and Jemma Tagg (Chief Executive, Twenty Essex and LPMA Co-Chair).
The Annual Bar and Young Bar Conference runs from Wednesday 23 to Saturday 26 November with a series of online and in-person fringe sessions and an all-day in-person and live-streamed programme on the Saturday at the Grand Connaught Rooms, London.