Earlier this week, in our series of posts to mark World IP Day 2018 (#WorldIPDay), we looked at women’s increasingly significant contributions to the UK patent profession. But when good ideas end up in court, there also need to be barristers with the expertise to defend or enforce the associated IP rights.  And at the IP bar, as in the patent profession, there are still too few women.

IP barrister Kathryn Pickard, of 11 South Square (one of our Charter signatories), has taken a look at the role of women at the IP bar during the 99 years since women were first able to join the legal profession.  She celebrates the achievements of female barristers both past and present, and the progress that has been made towards bringing more women into this fascinating and rewarding career.  As in any area of IP law, of course, we must continue to build on that progress to ensure that creative, innovative and inspiring women can continue to power change through the IP system.

Kathryn writes: “This year’s theme for World IP Day is timely. 2018 has been lauded as the year of the woman. In the UK, it marks 100 years since women were given the vote and 99 years since women were first able to join the legal profession. It is an appropriate time to reflect on the role of women at the intellectual property or “IP” bar.What is the IP Bar and what do its members do?

For those unfamiliar with IP or the UK legal system, members of the IP Bar are barristers who specialise in intellectual property law. They give advice to clients when questions of the validity or infringement of intellectual property arise and argue their clients’ cases in court.

Intellectual property rights underpin the scientific, technological and creative industries and come in a variety of different forms: from patents for inventions to copyright for literary, music and artistic works; from design rights for innovative industrial designs to trade marks for global brands; from performance rights for musicians to trade secrets for businesses and privacy rights for individuals.

The work of an IP barrister is fascinating. Not only is the law relating to intellectual property constantly evolving, but the subject matter of cases is infinitely varied. A career at the IP bar is challenging, interesting and rewarding.

What role do women play at the IP Bar? An active and important one! There are women barristers in active practice at all levels, dealing with all sorts of disputes and appearing in all tribunals (from the UK IPO to the Supreme Court). Some have trained as specialist IP mediators, others sit as appointed persons (hearing trade mark appeals). Two have reached the esteemed ranks of QC in England and Wales, and a third in Scotland.

An historic precedent, Thomas Pink v Victoria’s Secret [2014] EWHC 2631 (Ch), was the first High Court IP action in which both sides’ leading counsel were women. The subject-matter of the dispute was somewhat ironic in the circumstances, as Charlotte May QC noted in her opening speech:

Before I go any further, I think it is worth noting in open court and for the benefit of the transcript at least that today we make legal history for it is the first time ever so far as we are aware that there is an IP case in the Chancery Division where both parties are represented by female silks.

We consider that progress, my Lord, although, of course, it is bitter irony that it is a case about lingerie and the colour pink.”

Why is it important to recognise the role of women at the IP Bar?

As in any other field, I think it is important to recognise the specific role of women to counter the subconscious bias that might otherwise be operating to dissuade women from certain careers.

Men have been practising as barristers much longer than women. The first historical mention of lawyers of the Inner and Middle Temples dates back to 1388, yet the first woman called to the Bar was Dr Ivy Williams in 1922, some 534 years later. Given the 500-year head start that men have had, it is unsurprising that if somebody is asked to think of a barrister they will inevitably picture a man. Events such as this year’s World IP Day are important to correct that bias. 

Whilst there are no official statistics, a quick glance at the IP Bar Association’s website or the websites of some of the specialist IP sets, indicates that women make up just under one quarter of those practising at the IP Bar. That lags a little behind the proportion of women practising at the Bar overall (around 35% according to the Bar Council’s most recent figures). That may be due, in part, to the fact that less women graduate in STEM subjects than men. Whilst a scientific background is not a prerequisite to a career at the IP Bar, it can be an advantage. It is to be hoped that as the numbers of women taking up STEM subjects increase, so too do the number of women ultimately pursuing careers in the IP professions.

Why should women pursue a career at the IP Bar?

I would definitely recommend a career at the IP Bar to any woman. My own experience has been an extremely positive one. My colleagues have always been supportive. My chambers provided excellent support during two periods of maternity leave. Since returning to practice, my clerks have helped me balance the demands of career with those of raising a family. As with any job, things do not always go smoothly: late nights and weekend working cannot be avoided. But there are particular aspects of life as an IP barrister that make the juggling easier: flexible working practices, e-mail instructions and electronic papers, telephone conferences and the fact that you are self-employed and can manage your overall workload. Men, just as much as women, take advantage of these features.

My perception is that the number of women working in the various IP professions is increasing. It is now common to be involved in a team where there are at least equal numbers of men and women involved.

In 1910 Punch published a cartoon showing a woman dressed in a barrister’s wig and gown with the caption: “Probably the next absurdity in ladies’ winter costumes”. This World IP Day, I am pleased to be able to report that the presence of women at the IP Bar is not simply a passing fashion trend, but a well-established feature with a positive future.”

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