Where gender is no Bar to success

WITH the white cocker spaniel-style wig, the silk gown and the air of starch superiority, the courtroom Bar is something we associate more with Rumpole of the Bailey than young, glamorous women.

The pomp, tradition and authority lend legal advocacy the staid image of a bygone world of old boys and school ties. But think again. For an unprecedented half of new entrants (known as "intrants") to the Faculty of Advocates at Parliament House in Edinburgh this year are women.

In an historic redress of the gender imbalance traditionally associated with the Bar, seven of the 14 intrants are female, a stark change from the days when Margaret Henderson Kidd became the first woman admitted to the Faculty in 1923.

The Faculty, which has been in existence since 1532, has been criticised in the past for being an outdated, male-only bastion. Which is hardly surprising given that of the independent organisation’s 440 practising members, just 98 are women.

And even those numbers have been slowly gained. Back in 1980, 15 new advocates were admitted to the Faculty and only two were female. Eleven years later, five of the 15 intrants - a third - were female.

Maggie Scott, QC, was one of those five intrants in 1991. Earlier this year, the 40-year-old from Stockbridge "took silk", becoming a member of the prestigious Queen’s Counsel. "There are now almost 100 women practising at the Bar," she says. "Little more than a decade ago, the number of women at the Bar could almost have been counted on the fingers of one hand.

"The trend is encouraging and indicates that the erroneous perception of the Scottish Bar as being a male-only enclave is slowly but surely disappearing. Our approach now is very much one of if you are good enough, then you will be made welcome - it doesn’t matter what your gender may be."

Maggie has certainly earned her spurs, acting as lead counsel on such high-profile appeal cases as the Lockerbie bombing and the Glasgow Ice Cream Wars, currently defending both Al Megrahi and TC Campbell. She was also successful in the appeal case of Kim Galbraith, whose murder conviction for shooting her policeman husband was reduced to diminished responsibility.

She adds: "It’s not just the numbers though that have changed, the atmosphere has also changed because there are more women there. It’s very positive. Any clubby atmosphere that was there has now disintegrated.

"I found it less difficult than I expected being a woman in a male-dominated world. It’s certainly become a lot easier for women. It started as a pretty well male preserve, but I think now you’re judged on your ability. If you’re good, you will earn the respect of both men and women.

"Men definitely still and always have had recognition for their work much more easily than women, but now we are starting to be seen in the high-profile sort of work such as the really big criminal cases. It’s hard work and very stimulating - but not nearly as well paid as people think."

In saying that, the Bar is perhaps the one place in the legal profession where there doesn’t appear to be any clear discrepancy in terms of earning potential, as advocates are self-employed and set their own fees. Susanne Murning, 27, who lives in Greenbank Village, joined the Bar in 2000 and says she has encountered no chauvinism or discrimination as a woman advocate. "I’ve never experienced anything like that," she insists. "There are a lot of traditions, but from my point of view, there’s no obvious gender issue because there are so many women in the Faculty now.

"It’s quite a close working relationship because we’re all self-employed and a lot of us work in the Signet library much of the time.

"I think you need persistence and I suppose you need the sort of qualities generally associated with men - competitiveness and ambition. I love getting into court. You learn a lot and you get to see how juries operate and I can’t imagine there’s any barrier at all to high earnings."

And does she think the presence of more women is beneficial to the judicial system? "Definitely. It’s important to have a mix."

As for any suggestion the Bar may be inherently unaccommodating when it comes to motherhood, Susanne says: "I think it’s family-friendly. There are no set hours. You can work round court hours then finish at home. It’s not as restrictive as a standard office job or a solicitor’s job which tend to keep to regular hours."

The only real obstacle to entering the Faculty, she says, is one which makes no discrimination between the sexes: money.

You have to fund yourself through your devilling year - where you shadow a fully-fledged advocate - with no earnings. But it’s getting easier, she says. Many banks now offer Bar loans and for one exceptional intrant, the first year is sponsored by a scholarship.

"For entry to the Bar, there’s the money issue," she says. "You’ve got to leave a secure job as a solicitor. I was lucky - I got the Lord Reid scholarship for my devilling year."

Roy Martin, vice dean of the Faculty, believes the increase in women advocates is the result of a wider shift in attitudes across society. "Women in general are gaining more prominence in positions of importance, he says. "It is an indicator of a trend."

He says there has never been any positive discrimination to balance the sexes; women intrants are there on their own merit. "We do not seek to actively recruit members of either sex," he says. "We just look for the most able candidates."

Linda Marsh is one such high-flier - one of this year’s seven female intrants admitted to the Faculty in July. In her late 40s, she initially trained as a PE teacher, going on to become a college lecturer and flying instructor.

In 1990, she moved into local government, taking up a post as assistant director of education in Strathclyde Regional Council, where she became involved in a massive series of equal opportunity pay claims from female staff.

"Twice we had to go to the House of Lords on the issue and I was more or less hooked," she says. "I fell in love with the law, but I didn’t want to be a solicitor. The Bar was attractive right from the start. I love challenges. The prospect of being self-employed and succeeding or failing absolutely by your own efforts is something which really attracts me to the life.

"By and large, everyone I have come into contact with here has been supportive and welcoming. The Bar is very stereotyped. People think it’s a cross between Rumpole and John Thaw as Kavanagh QC, but I found the stereotypes not true to life.

"I was never put off by the perception of the Faculty being just a job for the boys, with the right school, accent and golf club being of paramount importance, and I’ve just not found that to be true at all. I’ve found it very welcoming. I didn’t find it the male bastion that I might have been led to believe."

She adds: "I think it goes on merit - if you’re good, you’re part of the club. I think I’d spot prejudice if I saw it. You only get work if people think you’re any good. You have to build a reputation for yourself - you’re not allowed to advertise."

As for women now being on an equal footing with men, at least as far as numbers are concerned, she says: "I’d go so far as to say that, just as is happening in medicine, in another ten years the girls will be outnumbering the boys.

"I’ve encountered no chauvinist attitudes. People take you for what you are. Everybody seems willing to help new people. It’s very collegiate. The Bar is unusual in that the main thing that would put women off is the same thing that would put men off - the insecurity of salary. The security of the wage packet is great."

It seems then that the stuffy image of the wig and tradition-infused gown seems to be vanishing within the legal corridors of power as the intake of women increases.

But, after all, the law represents men and women equally, so it can only be right that both men and women are present in the courtrooms to enforce it.