Bar chair aims to tackle diversity and pay issues after health scare
A brush with cancer taught Sara Phelan SC, the new chair of the Council of the Bar of Ireland, about the importance of seizing opportunities.
She had only just joined the council, the governing body for the bulk of barristers, in 2019 when a routine BreastCheck appointment led to the discovery of two lumps.
The mother-of-one had a lumpectomy and spent the first few weeks of the pandemic driving to the Mater Hospital from her home in Kilkenny for radiotherapy.
The 56-year-old admits that before overcoming cancer the thought of seeking election to lead the Bar’s 2,100 members never crossed her mind. It is an onerous role, placing her at the coalface of the many issues facing the profession.
But she is approaching the challenge with a sense of calm, much like she dealt with her diagnosis. “I am not somebody who worries about things. It was one thing I taught myself when I came into the Law Library because life as a barrister is very unpredictable,” she told the Irish Independent.
“I decided I wasn’t going to worry about things I had no control over. I had absolute faith in the doctors. I just let them get on with it.
“The diagnosis of any serious illness, everyone deals with it in their own way. That was my way. I just put the head down and got on with it.”
Asked if her experience had any relevance in her decision to seek election, she said: “I think it probably does. You re-evaluate maybe where you are and where you are going. It teaches you to just grab opportunities when they come up.”
That she is so frank about her cancer battle may surprise many in a profession where practitioners are self-employed and tend not to be open about health issues because of the impact this could have on their source of work.
“It wasn’t a secret. I was quite open with my colleagues and my instructing solicitors. I felt that by me being open about it, I was there if anyone else was in a similar position,” she said.
Ms Phelan is just the third woman to be elected chair of the Bar Council, following in the footsteps of her immediate predecessor Maura McNally SC and the late Ms Justice Mella Carroll.
While Ms McNally’s term was dominated by the pandemic and working with the Courts Service and judiciary to keep the courts system ticking over, Ms Phelan’s “in tray” is different but no less full.
A recent strategic review of the Bar by EY concluded Ireland has too many barristers for its population, the allocation of work is imbalanced leaving many members claiming to be suffering financially, and that the public feels the profession is “out of touch”.
I went into it blind, for someone who had no intention of being a barrister
Attrition was also highlighted as a concern as was a perceived lack of diversity.
Ms Phelan does not believe barristers are “out of touch”.
“We are literally dealing with day to day issues that people have,” she said.
“I think we are really privileged that through our work we can make a real difference to peoples’ lives.”
She is also well placed to deal with the issue of diversity.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, she did not have a family connection in the law.
Her father was a farmer and mother a teacher. In fact, she initially qualified as a pharmacist and worked as one for eight years. A friend suggested she should train at King’s Inns as, even if she never practised as a barrister, she would benefit from debating and analytical skills taught there.
“I went into it blind, for someone who had no intention of being a barrister,” Ms Phelan said. She joined the South Eastern Circuit and almost immediately found a niche in family law following the passing of the Divorce Act.
Criminal defence work also became, and remains, a staple.
While going “on circuit” outside of Dublin was “the makings” of her, she is acutely aware new entrants can find it difficult to earn a living while they try to get established, while women have struggled to progress to the senior ranks.
Just over 37pc of the Bar are women and, following calls to the Inner Bar yesterday, a fifth of senior counsel are female.
“That is a real good news story as it is the first time ever we have managed to get to 20pc female senior counsel. But there is more work to be done. It would be nice if it were 50pc,” she said.
Until recently she chaired a mentoring programme which gives female lawyers a one-to-one relationship with a senior colleague.
“Some of it can be challenging mindsets. There can be perceived barriers as opposed to actual barriers,” she said.
A total of 126 women have benefited from the programme and it will continue.
Other efforts to improve diversity will come in the form of an expanded online transition year programme in secondary schools, aiming to reach children with no legal connections, and plans to promote the Bar in universities.
Another key issue is seeking the reversal of criminal aid fee cuts made during the financial emergency between 2008 and 2011. Low pay levels, compared to civil law, have contributed to two-thirds of criminal barristers leaving within six years.
Ms Phelan said if this continues there will not be the expertise at the criminal bar to prosecute trials.
“It is a human rights issue. If you don’t have the expertise to prosecute those cases, then victims of crime aren’t being vindicated.”