United Kingdom

Top barrister says it's criminal what many like her have to put up with

Many people, asked to imagine a barrister, will still picture the fictional hero Rumpole Of The Bailey, the bulbous-nosed baritone in a pinstriped suit from the popular television series created and written by John Mortimer.

Always able to summon that crucial bit of evidence that exonerates his client just in the nick of time, Rumpole commanded the courtroom with the same authority that he ordered his third bottle of claret in El Vino afterwards.

So there will be rumbles of disapproval from some fans that Mortimer’s actress daughter Emily is, with her sister Rosie, rewriting the series with a female Rumpole at its heart. But I, for one, will cheer from the rooftops.

Before I became a barrister myself, Leo McKern’s Rumpole was exactly what I thought one should look like.

Sarah Langford said John Mortimer's Rumpole of the Bailey series left her assuming a barrister had to be male, white and Oxbridge-educated. Pictured: Leo McKern as Rumpole Of The Bailey

I assumed that to stride down courtroom corridors in wig and gown, a barrister had to be male, white, Oxbridge-educated and should preferably have a High Court judge as a godfather.

Having only one of those advantages, I thought I had better take a look at the legal world from a different angle.

After completing my English degree at a not-very-prestigious university, I worked as a legal secretary by day and, in the evening, pulled pints in a pub where many barristers who appeared in the nearby crown court would drink. Some of them indeed looked, sounded and behaved much like Rumpole. But, I realised, some did not. Some of them were normal people. Some were even women.

Times have changed. The scanners that check all bags entering a courthouse are now as likely to show up a pair of heels and a make-up bag as they are a leather-bound law book. In fact, 100 years after women were first legally allowed to practise, more of them now qualify as barristers than men.

So it’s good that Emily Mortimer is giving her father’s creation a 21st-century makeover. But please, don’t let the new Rumpole spend her time hopping into black cabs to the Royal Courts of Justice wearing red lipstick and vertiginous heels like Martha Costello QC from the BBC series Silk.

Instead, give her a couple of children. Better still, give her a baby. Then we might get a real glimpse into a woman barrister’s life.

Our new Rumpole wakes early, long before her children, to work on her case for the day. After feeding and dressing her offspring and dropping them off at their childcare or pre-school breakfast club, she tears through the station and just about manages to catch her train.

She arrives as the courthouse opens, an hour before the court day officially begins, and dashes between her client and opponent, trying to sort out last-minute issues before the case starts. The court’s lunch hour might find her down in the cells with the defendant, or reworking a cross-examination or closing speech for the afternoon.

Sarah (pictured) said women barristers are picked for less well-paid but mentally and emotionally demanding sex cases

When the court closes at 4pm, she waves at the old Rumpoles as they totter off to the pub to schmooze solicitors for work, and catches the train home to domesticity.

Often, on the way, she will get a call from her barristers’ chambers telling her that the case she thought she was doing the next day is no longer happening. Instead, she must be at a different court, several hours away from her home, at 9am for a different case: the papers are waiting for her to collect in the chambers.

After diverting to pick them up, she will be home in time to read her children a story. Only when they are asleep will she have a chance to start preparing her new brief. Because our modern-day Rumpole must juggle her job and domestic life in the way all working mothers do — and as every survey tells us, most women still find themselves the primary carers for children, no matter what their work responsibilities may be.

An added twist is that our Rumpole’s diary, besides being unpredictable and ever-changing, is full of sex offenders. For that is another odd consequence of being a woman at the Bar: deep-seated prejudices mean men are often chosen for the better-paid, longer-running fraud trials, while women are picked for the less well-paid but mentally and emotionally demanding sex cases.

As one woman barrister once told me: ‘I don’t do anything unless it’s got a penis in it.’

This is partly down to misogyny but also because some think it is more palatable for the jury to hear sordid details of a rape allegation coming from a woman than from a portly, posh, middle-aged man.

Sarah (pictured) said on smaller hearings such as bail applications, after you have coughed up for the train fare, you may actually end up paying to go to work

As Chris Henley QC, the previous head of the Criminal Bar Association, once noted in his weekly newsletter, of the 53 barristers working on his three previous trials — two frauds and a murder — only two were women.

But let the new Rumpole love her job nonetheless. Most barristers I know do. For many, it is closer to a vocation.

Despite the difficult days, it is a privilege to use your particular gifts to guide a vulnerable person through the seemingly impenetrable world of the law at what will be a life-changing time for them.

But no matter how much they love their work, when barristers become mothers, it is not just the practical difficulties of combining the job with family life that don’t stack up. Money matters, too.

Along with gavels in courtrooms and long lunches in El Vino, one myth which won’t go away is that all barristers are rich.

I understand that when people hear of gigantic sums in legal aid being paid on a case, they think the criminal Bar is a cash cow. But that figure often represents many months’ work and is split between all lawyers in the trial.

On smaller hearings such as bail applications, after you have coughed up for the train fare, you may actually end up paying to go to work. Some wags claim you can make more money per hour working as a barista than you can as a barrister.

So while our commercial cousins may be able to spend August on their yacht, we criminal hacks settle for far less.

Sarah (pictured) said hearing about friends being pulled off cases when they reveal their pregnancy, makes it feel as if there is still a long way to go 

The average pay for a criminal barrister of about 15 years’ experience is £40,000. And once you realise that an average nanny’s salary is £30,000, it becomes impossible for many barrister mothers to make crime pay.

The statistics bear this out. While there are nearly equal numbers of men and women entering the profession, 15 years after they qualify, only 33 per cent of barristers are women.

Only 16 per cent of barristers become Queen’s Counsel — the profession’s quality hallmark. And of the 500 top criminal legal aid earners, 83 per cent are men.

I am one of the statistics. I paused my career as a criminal and family barrister to have my first child but could not make the maths work to return before I had my second.

During this time I instead wrote my bestselling non-fiction book In Your Defence: Stories Of Life And Law, writing being far easier to fit around the needs of small children than court work.

Since then, a lot of effort has gone into stopping mothers leaving the Bar because of childcare and financial difficulties. But when I hear about friends emailing legal advice from the labour ward, or being pulled off cases when they reveal their pregnancy, it still feels as if there is a long way to go.

We need more realistic portrayals of women in the law so, I repeat, I am glad Emily Mortimer has decided to make her Rumpole a woman.

I just hope that we see this new incarnation of our legal hero trying to pump breast milk in a court’s toilet cubicle, making frantic calls to a childminder when her case runs over, or sighing when her male roommate is given a lucrative fraud trial and she gets yet another rape case.

Oh, and I hope she keeps a pack of wet wipes as well as a wig in her wheelie bag.

Sarah Langford is the author of In Your Defence: Stories Of Life And Law (Penguin Random House, £9.99).

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