Sara Phelan SC Practical, Paperless and Pro Diversity

Practical, Paperless and Pro Diversity

Sara Phelan SC Chair of the Bar Council of Ireland

When you have learned to swim at 45, and only then start white water kayaking, when you’ve switched career from pharmacy to law, then take on the job of Chair of the Bar Council – being only the third woman in 125 year history of the Bar to do so – you can see why Sara Phelan’s go to phrase is ‘tomorrow is another day’.

Sara certainly shares Scarlett O’Hara’s philosophy about tackling the future one day at a time and not giving up. When it comes to the future of her profession of barristers, she is hoping that tomorrow will be a more equal one with equal opportunities for work for both sexes and better prospects for advancement. One of the ways to ensure that the work that barristers get allocated is done more equitably, is by asking those who brief, or hire them, to take gender into consideration – given that the level of expertise is the same high standard.


“Briefing is the word that we use when we receive instructions from a solicitor, Sara Phelan says in the podcast. “Most of our work has to come through solicitors, we don’t deal with the public directly. So a member of the public will instruct a solicitor for whatever issue or problem they have, and then that solicitor decides to instruct or brief a barrister. So that’s where the word comes from. Equitable briefing really means equality across the profession so that in some areas, perhaps women are underrepresented in terms of the work that they do. And in other areas, perhaps men are underrepresented in terms of that practice area.”

It’s about asking solicitors or other briefing entities, such as in-house counsel or public bodies, to look beyond their normal pool of people that they use when they are instructing barristers she says. “I think ultimately, we’re all creatures of habit, we revert to type so that if I’m looking for somebody to do something, I’ll probably just think of the last person that did something similar, and I’ll go to them if they did a good job.”

Sara Phelan believes the new equitable briefing policy is about bringing diversity across the whole profession and this can be to the advantage of men as well as women. “When a client needs a barrister, the first thing is that they need a barrister with the requisite skill, experience, expertise, seniority, but thereafter, if a solicitor would normally prefer a male, well, then they might consider briefing a female who has all those attributes of seniority, etc. and likewise, if a solicitor would normally brief a female that they might consider briefing a male.”

Barristers Need to Reflect a Society That Is Changing

The profession of barristers needs to be more representative not only by gender but in other areas Phelan believes. “We have a much more diverse society now than we had 40 or 50 years ago, even 20 years ago, probably. Therefore, if you have more people from different backgrounds, acting and representing citizens and individuals, then I think there’s a diversity of opinion, of perception of expertise. And I think that just leads to better outcomes for everybody.”

Networking and The Comfort Zone

Sara Phelan says that networking has traditionally been an area that has not been easy for women unlike men who traditionally had sports occasions like golf. She believes that you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone to network. It is now part of the job especially for barristers who are self employed.

“I do think we need to look at other opportunities to network, whether that is by way of continuing professional education and development, giving CPDs, giving seminars, going to talks, going to things, going to conferences and actually making yourself available and putting yourself out there and that I don’t think it’s certainly not something that comes naturally to me. I absolutely have to work on it. To be honest, I’d prefer to be off walking the dog than necessarily doing something like networking, but I just realized how important it is. As I’ve grown older or more mature, I think I’ve come to realize how much more important it is.


Being the first or third female head of the Bar Council should not be remarkable or rare. In other areas the first woman through the door is often celebrated as an advancement. However keeping that door open or ajar is where the real achievement will be in the future. Ensuring a stream of talented women in the pipeline in the profession Sara Phelan believes will take work, a change of culture and making the bar a more welcoming place for a diverse more representative panel.


Sara Phelan says some of their initiatives are making a difference. These include the Transition Year outreach programme for secondary schools which has changed perceptions. Their Women and Law group mentoring is proving very useful too.

“We have a number of specialist Bar Association’s now, 17 Actually, and they’ve become quite popular. Each of those focuses on a different area of work. The idea is that those specialist bar associations might identify up and coming Junior counsel, male or female, and help promote them by linking in with solicitors in whatever area of business it is that they are involved, and putting their members out there as as available to go into solicitor firms and give CPD talks or give seminars or partake on a panel discussion, for instance. From a senior counsel perspective, most of the time you’ve acquired your expertise at that particular stage. But I think it’s really important to identify up and coming juniors therefore, when more senior juniors take silk, or move on in the profession, there is a succession stream there.”




Amazingly Paperless Practice

Sara Phelan is very aware of the environment influenced she says  in no small part by her son since he was in primary school. She is a flexible vegetarian, and tries not to eat meat. “I am very keen on using public transport when I can, and leaving the car at home. I have a paperless practice, that’s probably my best piece of work so that I don’t waste paper at all.  I use computers, I have a digital practice I think that’s what I’m doing best for the planet.”

She says COVID was a major driver of the paperless practice. “It also came from the fact that I was traveling up and down from Kilkenny to the Four Courts in Dublin and I needed to make sure that I had everything I needed with me it was an awful lot easier if you had it with you when it was up in the cloud.  I didn’t have to worry about carrying paper files,  it saved my back because I wasn’t lugging stuff around the place and it meant I had access to anything I needed access to. So it’s great.

Pearls Of Wisdom

Sara Phelan’s Pearls of Wisdom are super. She used to be a terrible worrier but stopped that realising it was a waste of time and energy worrying about things she had no control over.

Another is to ‘Focus on me’. “Don’t worry about what everybody else is doing. That came from coming in without any connections without any experience. You could look around and see that your compatriots or your colleagues are getting lots of work, and then you might begin to become insecure because you weren’t getting the work. So again, it was focus on me, let everybody else paddle their own canoe and I’ll worry about me and nobody else. Channeling Scarlett O’Hara again she says tomorrow is another day!

Have a listen to the full podcast. Please like and share and give the Women In Leadership podcast a follow wherever you get your podcasts!


Sara Phelan SC chair of the Bar Council of Ireland of Ireland. Picture Conor McCabe Photography.





Angela Mezzetti
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