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OWLSS Events: Women at the Commercial Bar

by Raylene Fang

Aspiring women lawyers tend towards the solicitor route, as a result of prevailing perceptions of prejudice against the bar. Last Tuesday, a panel of women barristers from four “magic circle” commercial chambers shared their personal experiences, debunking some of the myths that have deterred women candidates from joining the commercial bar.


Myths about the Commercial Bar

Ms Tamara Oppenheimer, a junior senior tenant of Fountain Court Chambers, observed that a key reason why becoming a solicitor is deemed the “default” choice is the assumption that it will be more conducive to having a family than joining the bar. This is an important consideration for many aspiring women barristers. Ms Oppenheimer, who began her career at a City law firm before making the switch to the commercial bar, challenged this prejudice. From her experience as a barrister working at arms’ length from clients, she seldom has to be at the beck and call of clients (as she would have been at her previous law firm). Additionally, as they are self-employed, barristers are not subject to the billable hours’ target and attendance requirements of solicitors. Ms Laura Newton from Brick Court Chambers flagged the barristers’ option of working from home, which should place women in good position to manage both professional and familial commitments.


The panelists reached a consensus that the commercial bar offered a better prospect of achieving work-life balance. Mrs Justice Dame Sara Cockerill – with her dual roles of High Court judge, and the author of two medieval history books – proudly shared that the flexibility of working as a barrister at Essex Court Chambers from 1991 to 2017 allowed her to develop an interest outside law. Two things helped her in this: first, the self-employed nature of the profession; second, the fact that barristers usually receive lucrative renumeration once they are past the early stages of their careers, thereby equipping them with the financial capability to support their personal and family lives. Yet, this does not necessarily mean that a planned life is totally elusive to junior barristers. Ms Veena Srirangam – a junior tenant from One Essex Court Chambers – confirmed that she had enjoyed “decent working hours as a pupil”.


A Case for Entering the Bar

Apart from greater predictability of working schedules (compared to solicitors at City law firms), another attraction of the commercial bar are the immense learning opportunities. Working as a commercial barrister allows one to extend their academic interests (e.g. in tort and contract law) beyond the university setting, and also helps one develop a wide range of skills outside the legal sphere. Ms Laura Newton recalled how intrigued she was while learning about the intricacies of - of all things - retractable seating mechanisms in sports pitches, when she acted for the owner of the former Olympic Stadium.


Moreover, the panelists assured us aspiring barristers of a supportive network for women barristers. Despite being self-employed, a barrister can still derive a sense of teamwork while working alongside QCs and solicitors. Ms Newton and Ms Oppenheimer both agreed that chambers have made conscious efforts to support women barristers. For example, Fountain Court Chambers provides financial benefits to women barristers on maternal leave, which Ms Oppenheimer considered were as generous as solicitors’ maternity leave perks at city law firms.


A Typical Day of a Commercial Barrister

The typical day of a commercial barrister varies with the seniority and levels of experience. During pupilage and as a junior tenant, Ms Veena Srirangam had been involved in a mixture of teamwork in cases led by QCs and independent work in unled cases. She recalled her most recent tasks consisted of drafting witness statements and discussing strategy questions with solicitors. Further up the professional ladder, a barrister will be expected to undertake more challenging tasks independently, and assume a leadership role in groupwork. A typical day of Phillipa Hopkins QC from Essex Court Chambers often involves advocacy, advice and drafting. Noting that a senior barrister is expected to draft a wide variety of legal documents independently, she emphasised the importance of enjoying writing in any capacity - be it factual, legal or of a persuasive kind.


On career advice to aspiring barristers, the panelists’ words of wisdom boiled down to: be brave! Ms Oppenheimer suggested that we should be more confident in following our heart, even if this meant venturing into less mainstream career routes. Hopkins QC shared a personal anecdote, which took place at the start of her barrister’s career: “During one court proceeding, the judge said to me: ‘The appellant’s counsel, please restrain yourself’. When I went back to my Chambers, I locked myself in the loo and cried for half an hour…But we’ve all made mistakes. What’s more crucial is to learn from those mistakes.” She urged us to be undaunted by our failures, and press on in our careers.

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Ruilin (Raylene) Fang is a staff writer for OWLSS. She is interested in commercial law and legal history. Ruilin is the committee member of OWLSS and Oxford Fintech & Legaltech Society as well as the deputy section editor (Comment Section) of The Oxford Student newspaper. You can reach her at ruilin.fang@magd.ox.ac.uk.


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