Are we all a bit confused: The Bar Identity Crisis

Posted: 28/05/2012 in Barrister, Legal aid, Pupil barrister
Tags: ,

In the late 90s, a black barrister appeared on television. She turned up to the chambers in Kavanagh QC and was instantly confused as an asylum seeker by the chambers stick-in-the-mud Jeremy Aldermartin.

Good old John Thaw took her under his wing and she won out over her plummy white male pupil rival. Of course, she faced racism on the way.

I think that was 1995.

It’s now 2013 – we’re still talking about diversity at the Bar.

In May of this year the Guardian commented, they said the traditions of the Bar were suited to those who were public schooled. The dinners made students from other backgrounds feel out of place. Dinners to me were easy. I went to state school.

Dinners for me were easy for three reasons: 1) I’m gregarious like most criminal barristers are; 2) for the big ones I often sat with ‘Silk Cut’ who would introduce me to the big names; 3) I’d been to Oxford so I’d done the sit next to intimidating figures I didn’t really want to.

Friends of mine who had been to other universities (privately educated before or not) – found it a bit more difficult. But nobody senior at the Bar ever talked down to them or were rude. In fact, they were incredibly welcoming.

So we can keep the dinner dates.

Pick a colour

In terms of diversity, there were 12000 self-employed barristers, of those, 1000 considered themselves as being from a BME background. What’s that? About 8%?

2001 census, the UK population was 92% white.

I don’t think colour is a problem.

One thing I do wonder about is how ethnic diversity is distributed across the Bar. There are senior black and asian barristers at the Criminal/Immigration/Public Law Bar.  The legal aid bit – what about in the commercial/chancery/admiralty sets?

Where were you schooled

I took another Barrister as a date to a party. One of my mate’s girlfriends who was a bit of a toff deployed her opening gambit: what do you do etc. Fair enough. Then, ‘Oxbridge I assume?’ to which the date replied ‘yes’ and toff approved, by the end of the evening she’d established where she’d gone to school and what her parents did.

Cringing yet?

It’s in the news this week. Firstly, the Sunday Times announces that public schooled barristers are disproportionately represented at the Bar and then the Etonian-son-of-a-judge pupil barrister was given a slap on the wrists for possession of drugs.

The Barrister presence on twitter is beginning to twinge and stir.

Why are the public schooled over represented at the Bar?

I think it’s simple. Public school applicants still do better at exams because of the personal attention and quality of education they receive. They are as a result able to access the best universities. And, the Bar wants to recruit the best from the best universities.

And so it should be.

The problem is, people still worry that the Bar is nepotistic. Won’t lie to you, I’ve seen an example of it. But that’s only one example in a much wider pool of entrants.

At the Legal Aid Bar it seems unnatural that nepotism would exist. It’s our job to represent all, I can’t see who ‘Daddy is’ really helping with that, nor where you did your GCSEs.

But for the ‘private bar’ – I don’t really know.

The real problem

The heart of the Bar identity problem as I see it, is that we don’t want to be seen as Jeremy Aldermartin/Clive Reader types. We want to be seen as being open to all who merit entry.  And that’s good as far as I’m concerned.

But, we’ve got a problem with recruitment. The problem is, we don’t know what image we’re recruiting in. Who do chambers want?

We want to be an elite profession but not elitist.

(So, do we fight the Oxbridge/Russell bias?)

We want to be an international profession but maintaining British standards.

(Do we prefer home grown, or try and bring in non-British nationals?)

We want to be service all parts of the community but want to be paid properly for it.

(We want to attract people from all sectors of society, but how do we pay for poorer entrants to train?)

We want to provide a service based on standards but is commercially viable.

(Do we choose candidates who are the best as bringing in the business or doing the work?)

Want to be traditional but yet progressive.

(Some of our traditions are linked to some of the most noble of our values but they may turn off entrants from diverse backgrounds)

We want to (in the most part) remain self-employed but want to support people from non traditional backgrounds

(Self-employment assists our independence but how do we support single Mums/Fathers or Carers who want to enter the profession)

Magic wand

I don’t think we can wave a magic wand, such as targets as to recruitment or such like. It won’t solve the problem. The Bar won’t change until it knows what it is in 2012.

If you’re thinking about the Bar though, I can assure you, we’re not all public schooled, Oxbridge educated, British white men.


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  1. Anon says:

    Might I suggest that telling an older BME man that he will never succeed at the Bar because he is a) too old and b) black does not improve the chances of increasing diversity. This was what a university friend of mine was told by a barrister when he expressed an interest in doing the BVC. In 2001.

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