By Katerina Wendt and Garry Williams
In recent years there has been an increasing trend overseas for barristers’ chambers to adopt parental leave policies for their self-employed members.
In England, the Bar Standards Board, which regulates barristers, has equality rules that – since 2017 – require chambers to have parental leave policies for self-employed members and which specify certain minimum standards: see the BSB Handbook, Rule C110 (available at www.barstandardsboard.org.uk).
The Bar Council of England and Wales provides guidance and a template parental leave policy.
In Australia, while there are no mandatory leave requirements, State level Bar Councils encourage chambers to adopt parental leave policies and have best practice guidelines and template policies that sets can adopt (eg, Victorian Bar Council Parental Leave Policy).
The promotion of parental leave policies in New Zealand to the Bar has not happened in the same way. Yet, the adoption of such policies by barristers’ chambers is to be encouraged.
No NZ requirements or guidelines
Unlike firms, barristers sole are required to operate independently (except for employed barristers), but can practise in a set of rooms or chambers and share resources and support services. Because of this, and the fact that there are no regulatory requirements or guidelines in respect of parental leave policies for chambers in New Zealand, they have not traditionally provided parental leave assistance for self-employed members. Parental leave policies have either been seen as unnecessary (because everyone is self-employed) or not a matter for chambers intervention.
We believe that that approach is wrong and that the support of new parent members by chambers is to be encouraged and has the potential to improve the diversity of the separate Bar significantly.
Given that the majority of primary caregivers continue to be women, parental leave policies, or the absence thereof, have a disproportionate impact on women. Anecdotally, reasons for female lawyers sometimes being reluctant to join the separate Bar include concerns around financial security and, in particular, the financial effect of taking time off work to have children. Not only is there no paid leave for barristers – who are self-employed sole practitioners – but if there is no chambers support they will usually need to continue to meet ongoing chambers costs while on leave.
While it’s true that some chambers allow the sub-letting of rooms to ameliorate these costs, others do not.
Depending on the extent to which the barrister stops work while on leave, they will receive either no or limited income during the time taken out from practising, and potentially reduced income after returning and while rebuilding a practice.
Richmond Chambers’ policy
Last December Richmond Chambers in Auckland adopted a parental leave policy which it hopes will assist its members with these issues. The policy allows members to take a period of up to six months’ leave, free of rent and associated chambers costs, following the birth or adoption of a child. The policy also offers assistance to members returning from parental leave to re-establish their practice.
The policy applies to all members equally. Therefore, while it is intended that the policy will assist in redressing, at least, some of the issues that deter women from going to or remaining at the independent Bar, it is designed to remove some of the barriers which might otherwise prevent all barristers from stepping out of practice to care for their children.
Richmond Chambers’ members are pleased to be able to offer this support. The adoption of the policy also aligns with chambers’ broader commitment to encouraging and retaining diverse talent at the Bar and encouraging members to achieve a balance between their personal and professional lives. Richmond Chambers has adopted its own Equality and Diversity Policy as well as the New Zealand Law Society/New Zealand Bar Association Gender Equitable Engagement and Instruction Policy, both of which are available on the chambers website.
If anyone wishes to discuss the Richmond Chambers’ Parental Leave Policy or adopt it or adapt it for their set, they can contact members or the Chambers Manager, Kate Thornber (firstname.lastname@example.org). More broadly, lawyers or students/graduates who are considering joining the independent Bar are very welcome to contact Richmond Chambers to discuss any aspect of practice at the independent Bar.