The bar is no longer a men-only affair

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It is 80 years since Margaret Kidd became the first woman to be admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh. The significance of her storming that bastion is clear in Ms Kidd’s praise of James Macdonald, KC, who allowed her to shadow him for her "devilling year" - the period of training immediately preceding her being called as an advocate.

"He took me on, and it was a bold thing for anyone to take on a woman then," Ms Kidd recalled 25 years later - in 1948, when she was still the only female advocate at Parliament House and had not yet been made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Times have changed. This year’s July calling to the bar saw ten female advocates newly welcomed to the faculty, meaning that, for the first time, more than 100 women are eligible to wear the wig and the gown.

Critics would argue that change has been rather slow in coming. Established in 1532, it has taken Parliament House almost five centuries to boost its female ranks to its current level of 106 advocates. With 356 male advocates currently qualified, women still account for fewer than a quarter of those working in what is widely regarded as the sharpest end of the legal world.

However, it is a trend which is gathering momentum. In 1997, the first year the faculty began to keep gender records, there were just 78 women advocates compared with 303 men, with women accounting for just over 20 per cent of the total. Today, with 106 women and 356 men, females account for almost 23 per cent.

Although the gender imbalance remains, the public perception that the bar is still a bastion of male domination in character and conduct where women struggle to compete, is untrue - at least according to female advocates.

"As an advocate, you sink or swim on your own merits," says Roisin Higgins, 31, who was called to the bar three years ago after four years as a solicitor. "You are self-employed and people will employ you because they think you will win, not because you are male or female.

"I have never encountered a moment’s sexism as an advocate, and I have confidence in the faculty as a meritocracy."

In fact, far from being a hostile environment to female advocates, some are now suggesting that for women hoping to combine a career with child-rearing, advocacy might be the arm of legal practice which offers the most family-friendly path.

A recent survey of women lawyers south of the Border found that hundreds of high-flying female solicitors are deserting the profession in their 30s as they feel they are not allowed to combine work with rearing a family.

The study was carried out by the Young Solicitors Group, the Association of Women Solicitors and the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales. It found that up to 60 per cent of women who leave their jobs do so for child-related reasons. More than two-thirds said they quit because of the problems of balancing home and child-care requirements with working life, while nearly half cited what they perceived as the profession’s attitude to returning women.

The Law Society of Scotland points out that the study did not include any findings for north of the Border, where solicitors’ practice can be very different to the demands of London city firms and the burden of the commuter belt. In fact, Elaine Motion, a partner at Balfour and Manson, in Edinburgh, says many solicitors’ practices are wise to the fact that flexible working patterns can be crucial to retaining female staff in particular.

Ms Motion, who was made a partner while on maternity leave with her second child, says: "I think today it is accepted that it is better to have a good solicitor back to work part-time than to lose her altogether.

"It is accepted at this firm that children will come first. I have the ability to work from home if I need to; I have the ability to collect the children from school if I need to.

"It is all a question of managing your time, and people who manage well can work around their families."

Nevertheless, as an employee, a mother - or, indeed, a father - will always be at the mercy of their boss when it comes to flexibility.

Although advocacy could never be regarded as an easy option, it does offer advocates the scope to control the level of work they take on over the course of a year. On a day-to-day basis, it can also be adapted to fit around the requirements of the school run and sports days.

Roisin Higgins says: "I stopped being a solicitor because I love the law and wanted to be involved in problem-solving.

"But when I was discussing coming to the bar with advocates, a number of male and female advocates pointed out that, should it be a consideration, it is quite a child-friendly career."

Margaret Breslin, 45, is one of this year’s intrants to the faculty, having spent 20 years as a solicitor, latterly in a legal aid practice in Drumchapel, one of Glasgow’s most deprived areas.

She can see both sides of a family-friendly faculty. She says: "I found that, as a solicitor, I was spending more and more time on administration, filling out legal aid forms, running a practice, dealing with staff. I wanted to get closer to what a lawyer is meant to do, and the bar offered that.

"The working hours were not a consideration to me but a lot of advocates are aware of the advantages being self-employed can offer.

"One male advocate I know stopped work when court finished at 4pm, collected the kids from school, spent the evening with his family and then went back to the advocates’ library late at night, or in the early hours, to do some work.

"I would hate the bar to be seen as a means for women - who seem to do most child-care - to work their jobs around their families, but I think a lot of advocates are aware of the benefits of this.

"Having said that, everyone I have met at the faculty works very hard, dealing with very serious issues.

"There are times when the case can go mad and an advocate has to be there, working all hours, so it cannot be seen as the soft option."

Colin Campbell QC, the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, welcomes the fact that the number of women at the Scottish Bar has exceeded 100 for the first time.

"The faculty is still sometimes portrayed as an old-fashioned, male-dominated, bastion of privilege, but that is a completely outdated view," he says.

"The bar welcomes people of all backgrounds who have achieved the required qualifications.

"For both men and women, the bar offers a varied and fascinating career which is tremendously challenging but also sufficiently flexible to allow them to combine the job with the demands of family life."