Cecily Motley meets Abi (known to her friends as OJ), a London-based barrister who was called to the Bar in 2011. She focuses on serious crime, professional discipline and inquiry work. Passionate about representing young and vulnerable defendants, she often appears in serious and complex cases co-defending with and being prosecuted by far more senior members of the Bar. OJ won the 2018 Diversity Legal Awards Rising Star (Chambers) category and was a finalist in the 2018 Black British Business Awards. She talks to us about the complexities of being a self-employed barrister and what she wears to work.
CM: Do you think the expectations of you as a woman differ to those of a man in your industry?
OJ: At the Bar, initially, there tends to be more women than men. It’s about 60% to 40% at entry level, and then there is an attrition of women as the profession becomes more senior. Historically there has been a lack of flexibility in the way that barristers are expected to work. When things happen in your personal life which make you unavailable for work, there isn’t always opportunity for sufficient adjustment, e.g. having children, periods of illness, needing to be a carer. So people who lack financial cushions may find that they have to decide whether to stay at the Bar. Women are more likely than men to fall into those categories and that’s when you tend to see a movement towards employed alternatives that offer more stability and benefits.
CM: So it can be difficult to find balance?
OJ: Exactly, because we’re self-employed. Once people have children and things become more demanding at home, that can be a trigger to move across and become an employee because it’s easier to manage when you are clearer on your hours and have a steady income. I don’t think so much that there is a difference in expectation, I think there is a lack of flexibility according to some responsibilities that women may face more than men such as childcare. That’s a reflection in part of society’s expectations. Why do men who work not experience the same level of childcare pressures and weight of expectation? But, there are a lot of adjustments being made; for example my Chambers has shared parental leave policies, and we are encouraged to speak to our clerks about introducing structures that can help you with your work life balance. We are also encouraged to set specific times that we will not answer work calls or emails i.e. evenings and weekends. Wellbeing is becoming an integral part of the profession and Chambers and courts are strongly encouraged to consider it at all times. It’s getting better.
CM: That’s good. At least you feel positive about it. Is there an accepted view of how women are meant to look in your industry?
OJ: Yeah! We have rules around what we’re supposed to wear! We (men and women) have to wear dark coloured suits and normally we’re in the Crown Court or a higher court (like the Court of Appeal) then we need to wear court dress on top which involves wearing a wig, gown, and collarette. I don’t think many judges enforce it to the letter, but technically if you’re not dressed properly for court, a judge will say that they cannot hear you. It doesn’t happen very often but it would be really embarrassing if it did. It’s more straightforward for a man to be smart in court, because as long as they have a well cut suit, they’re probably fine. Whereas for a woman, because we have more variation, it’s easier to fall into the area of discretion for somebody to tell you that what you’re wearing isn’t smart enough. It’s more intrusive in terms of feedback you could receive about your appearance. I’ve found that it’s more likely that a woman’s appearance will be commented on than a man’s.
CM: So how do you express your individuality in a workplace, if at all, as it sounds like it’s not too possible…
OJ: The Bar is one of the rare areas where men have more of an opportunity to express themselves than women do, they have flair that they can put into things, like brightly coloured socks, coloured shirts, cufflinks, and linings on suits. Actually, men’s suits tends to be better fitted than women’s. You can go to a men’s High Street brand and get a pretty well tailored suit at a reasonable price. Less so for women. So I tend to keep my clothing plain and simple. Then the way that I would express my individuality is obviously through jewellery, different types of earrings and so on. And shoes! If I know I’m giving a speech, or cross examining a particularly difficult witness, I consciously wear my high heels so I feel more powerful. My posture changes, I feel taller, I take up more space, I feel more authoritative.
CM: It’s nice how those little elements that are just for you and only for you make you feel so much better in a room full of people.
OJ: Yeah, I have certain dresses that I like the particular cut of, so I’ll wear them for certain things. For me, especially as a black woman, I think hair is a really good way of being able to express myself, as I can change my hair quite quickly compared to other people. So one day I can wear long braids, like I do at the moment, or I can have weave, or my fro pulled back or plaits or anything. There are lots of little ways to bring my personality in.
CM: Yeah definitely. For you, what does work-life balance mean? Is it possible?
OJ: I’ve got to a point now in my job where I need to take more control over the cases I take on. I’m moving from being quite junior to increasing my seniority so I need to think about what focus I want my practice to have and what income levels I need. A big part of work life balance is about controlling the type of work. I’m doing so it always feels worthwhile, and that I’m moving forward in terms of my career. Being married, I take Jack [OJ’s husband] into consideration when I’m not working, and I have to be a lot more intentional in the way that I structure my days. It makes you look after your time more defensively. It shouldn’t be this way, but if people know that someone is single and they don’t have kids, they think they can chuck whatever they want at you at whatever hour. Getting married has made me reclaim that time.
CM: Yeah you’re so right, it’s your time, you should choose how you spend it. If you could do one thing to change your industry what would it be?
OJ: Hmmmm… so many things I would change.
CM: Well speaking with you, it does sound like your industry is trying to be more aware of societal changes than I presumed it would be.
OJ: I think that it does do that to an extent, but it’s often steps behind other areas of the workforce. It’s because we are all self-employed individuals so it can take us a while to catch up. It takes us a while to realise there are things we ought to be entitled to because so many of us have not had the structure of employment and the welfare that comes with that. I would make the profession more stable and consistent from an earlier stage. Sometimes you’ll be super busy, which is great because it means you’re earning more but that can also mean feeling really overwhelmed by the amount of work you’re doing. Other times you have slow periods where you’re not earning enough, and then you can’t fully enjoy that down time because you don’t know when the busy period will come. Just having the ability to know what will be in your diary so you can plan accordingly. Stability would balance a lot of issues you see at the Bar.
CM: The power is regarded as inspiring confidence in its poser, what do you do to bring confidence to the working day?
OJ: Genuinely, the thing that makes me feel most confident is feeling prepared. As long as I know that I’ve prepared everything, like my speech, cross-examination, the papers. Then even if something comes up which is new on the day, I can’t be criticised for not having prepared for that and feel comfortable asking for time to consider it. The thing that makes me feel most confident is feeling on top of what I have to deal with.
CM: Do you get adrenaline or nerves in court?
OJ: It’s both, because as much as you prepare, there can be something which surprises you, you don’t know whether a client is going to change their instructions, or if you’re going to have a particularly difficult opponent; you have no idea what the jury is thinking. There’s nothing worse than finishing the examination of a witness and sitting down moving onto the next witness and feeling as though you’ve missed a key topic or question. Being ready deals with a lot of nervousness.
CM: What are you most intimidated by?
OJ: Probably a feeling that somebody is more on top of a case than I am. I’m always against a prosecutor because I only defend, but there are scenarios where you’re co-defending, and there are many people who feature on the same indictment. So the only time where I would feel intimidated now would be if for whatever reason the person next to me is more in touch with the case than I am. Right at the beginning when everything was very new I was intimidated by the process, whereas now, I’ve been doing it long enough that the process itself is quite comforting, I know what to do with most things, or at least I know to look for the answers. It would be intimidating to feel like you’re underprepared.
CM: How long have you been doing this?
OJ: I was called to the Bar in November 2011. It’s getting to the point where I really need to stop thinking I’m junior junior barrister. I need to take myself more seriously!
CM: What are you most proud of?
OJ: In this job, what keeps you going is immediate feedback on your services. The times I’m most proud are occasions when clients have felt they have been well represented, and that hasn’t always been tied to the outcome, it can happen when they are convicted, plead guilty or are sentenced. Ultimately, clients want to feel that they’ve been through a fair process which enables them to feel heard and to accept the outcome. It feels really good, especially when it’s somebody who’s used to being overlooked or feels that they have no autonomy in the process.