Training and progression

Social mobility, equality and diversity at the Bar

25 Jan 2023, 13:36

The Bar wants the best people for the job and is trying to get the message out there.

Picture of rainbow coloured pins accompanying the article on diversity at the Bar

The Bar holds on to tradition in so many ways. There are no handshakes between colleagues, formal gowns and wigs are still used for the call to the Bar ceremony, and formal dining at the Inns of Court is still a requirement for qualifying sessions. Until the latter half of the 20th century, it was a career path favoured by privileged white men from certain family or social backgrounds. The modern Bar is a very different place, one eager to cast off the archaic stereotypical ‘old boys club’ imagery and to send a message to aspiring barristers that you are welcome, no matter your gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or socio-economic background.

Last year, in response to concerns raised by chambers and aspiring barristers, targetjobs Law informally interviewed students about their concerns with the hiring process in law. Students were commonly worried about a tendency for a firm or chambers to prefer candidates of a specific gender from a batch of pre-selected or ‘traditionally used’ universities and about not being judged for not having a ‘posh’ accent at interviews. To put some of those concerns to rest and help debunk some of these stereotypes, we contacted chambers and Bar representatives to see how they’re trying to encourage the next generation of barristers.

Future female lawyers – the commercial Bar wants you

At the junior end of the Bar, the gender split between practising barristers is almost even (48%/52% according to the Bar Standards Board report on diversity in 2017). This parity wavers when it comes to senior juniors (40%/60%) and disappears entirely for Queen's Counsels (QCs) (15%/85%). It should also be mentioned that this is across the entirety of the Bar and may vary by practice area. The commercial Bar, concerned about the diversity of candidates, is keen to encourage more women into a career in commercial law at the Bar.

‘We analyse our recruitment data annually and we see that year-on-year, although there are slight improvements, we are underrepresented in terms of BAME and female candidates relative to the population,’ says Tamara Oppenheimer, commercial barrister at Fountain Court Chambers and the set’s diversity and equality officer. ‘Recruitment at the Bar is totally meritocratic. We are looking for the most able people with the necessary intellectual, analytical and communication skills. We're not concerned with what your gender or social background is – we just want the best lawyers. There is something that is putting the best people off in those underrepresented groups because we're not seeing the numbers of applications coming through.’

One of the factors that may be affecting applications at the commercial Bar is competition with solicitors’ firms, suggests Tamara. Retention rates, the ever-popular metric for aspiring solicitors to measure their chances of a job post-training, can influence the decision of whether to apply to a law firm. For pupillage, it tends to highlight just how competitive and expensive it can be to reach your goal. Where a magic circle law firm hires legions of graduate recruitment officers dedicated to managing equality and diversity, releasing retention statistics and drumming up interest on campus; barristers are full time, self-employed and without the expensive marketing and press teams that are provided by a corporate environment. And of course the magic circle law firms are able to finance candidates through law school. The recruitment work at the Bar has to be a little less ostentatious by design.

At Fountain Court some of that work involves putting a ‘human face’ on the otherwise exceptionally professional and highly academic surface of the legal profession.

‘Because we don't have these vast graduate recruitment machines, we try to think carefully about what we can do with what we have. We know that looking through barristers’ CVs and seeing a clutch of degrees and qualifications can be off-putting,’ explains Tamara. ‘We have therefore put up some alternative profiles on the recruitment section of our website which highlight the fact that we have members who are from ethnic minorities, non-Oxbridge universities, who formerly attended state school and who have come through from another route as a solicitor. We've also got a pupillage video to get across that it's a nice place to work and one where recruitment is selected on merit only.’

The situation is not unique to Fountain Court at the commercial Bar. Chambers have been working together under the umbrella of COMBAR (the Commercial Bar Association) to promote equality, diversity and best practice at the Bar. One of the major concerns is losing out on the best students, whatever their background or gender, to the major solicitors’ firms.

‘I would say to the women out there who are thinking “the solicitors' route looks so much more attractive” – the Bar, the commercial Bar, is a better place to be,’ says Tamara, a former solicitor at Allen & Overy prior to becoming a barrister. ‘You have flexibility that you do not have in a solicitors’ firm – you're not at the beck and call of your clients, no one snaps their fingers and expects you to jump, not least because we don’t have billable fee targets. There are exceptions to that as a barrister – when you're coming up to a hearing, for example – but it can be much easier to manage work and family. Trials are scheduled and you can plan around them; it’s also easier to work remotely and hop on a laptop when you need to. I can’t imagine that happening for a trainee at a solicitors’ firm.’

Socio-economic stigma in the legal profession

The cost of training is not cheap, and a recent estimate placed the cost of qualifying to become a barrister at around £50,000. Chambers have been adapting to the costs with higher pupillage awards and offers of ‘draw down’ advances, but life has been hard for certain areas of law, and with it comes a stigma that you can only be at the Bar if you’re wealthy, white, and from a good university. It’s something that the Bar Council wants to change.

Earlier in the year, the Bar Council launched its ‘I am the Bar’ campaign, twinned with the hashtag #iamthebar on Twitter. Barristers from what are considered ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds told the story of how they came to, and succeeded at, their career. Among other stories were those who immigrated to the UK at a young age with little family wealth; those who may have been the first of their family to go to university; and those who struggled to fund their studies and pupillage in the early years. The Bar Council originally picked a group of 11 barristers to be social mobility advocates, sharing their stories and the challenges that they faced and have overcome in order to inspire students and to explode the myths about the type of person that is right for the Bar. Needless to say, for a profession that revolves around its members’ ability for advocacy, the campaign blew up on social media, with those not officially involved in the campaign tweeting their journey to the Bar in short, easy to understand bites.

‘Our overall view on diversity at the Bar is that there is an incredible amount of work going on, whether that's by Bar course providers, the Inns of Court, the Bar Council or chambers, and specialist Bar associations,’ explains Benjamin Burns, education and training policy analyst at the Bar Council. ‘We launched the ‘I am the Bar’ campaign to link that all together under one consistent message. We could see why aspiring barristers might find it difficult to see everything that is being done by the Bar to make sure that the recruitment system is as fair as possible.’

The Twitter campaign alone attracted more than 100,000 engagements, including chambers, barristers, universities and students sharing their stories on social media. Now that students are returning to university, the campaign is due to continue.

‘We see this as a starting point for further activities. A hashtag isn't going to solve problems on its own, but it is a platform for further activity,’ adds Benjamin. ‘It was successful in terms of chambers getting on board and we have seen some chambers profiling their own members and creating their own social mobility-style advocate profiles.’

In addition to the campaign, the Council also coordinates Bar Placement Week twice per year. It is a scheme designed to get sixth form pupils from underrepresented backgrounds, prior to law studies, into a work experience placement in chambers to experience life as a barrister without the gruelling competition and legal education usually expected of mini-pupils. Some 90 chambers take part in the scheme, which is divided in two rounds: North and South.

The Bar Council is also instrumental in getting barristers represented at law fairs. Generally devoid of swanky freebies and campus ambassadors, it’s harder to mark the presence of the Bar at your average law fair. For the coming year the council is attending fairs at Birmingham, Newcastle, Hull, Liverpool, Manchester, Lancaster, Wolverhampton, Nottingham Trent, Warwick, Southampton, Exeter, Cardiff, Essex, Sussex, Queen Mary, King's College and UCL; as well as the pupillage fair at the end of the year. More information can be found from your university careers service, or via the websites at the bottom of this article. Each event is usually attended by at least one or two barristers from different areas of legal practice.

A note to aspiring criminal and family barristers

Your background may not matter at the Bar, but it would be remiss not to mention that there are still considerable economic concerns that are affecting the family and criminal Bar due to the government’s cuts to legal aid over the last several years. It is now considerably harder to pursue a career in the early years at the criminal Bar without some form of independent financial support. Each Bar-related organisation will have its own separate lobbying work on the issue, but the message at the moment is to be realistic.

‘There's certainly a lot being done by the Bar Council, the Inns, chambers and the specialist Bar associations on getting a realistic message out to students that isn't pessimistic, but isn't too optimistic about the realities of being a criminal or family barrister in the current climate. At the moment the focus is on making sure that students have a realistic understanding of what it's like to go into criminal law versus commercial law,’ explains Ben. ‘And to not discourage those students who are really committed to criminal law from pursuing it, just explaining the forms of support that are out there at the training stage or ways that they can cross-subsidise their practice in criminal law with other practice areas.’

LinkedIn envy and checking chambers' pupil profiles

It’s almost a given that in the most competitive of careers, the success stories that stand out on a chambers website will read more like a transcript of an awards ceremony than an individual’s profile, but looks can deceive, and pupillage candidates may want to read between the lines, advises Hardwicke barrister Cameron Stocks.

‘In my view, a large part of the problem is the lack of visible inclusivity at the Bar for those applicants looking in on the profession from the outside, seeking signs that it is welcoming for all, no matter their background. Looking back, one thing that struck me is that members’ profiles often do not reflect who they are as a person or the challenges they may have faced to make a career at the Bar, especially the non-visible aspects of diversity such as LGBTQ+ representation and socio-economic background,’ explains Cameron.

Hardwicke is one of Stonewall’s diversity champions, which means the chambers has partnered with charity to commit to equality for members of the LGBTQ+ community. The chambers also connects with a range of other organisations and initiatives, as well as being a founding member of FreeBar, promoting LGBTQ+ equality and inclusion across the legal profession.

‘Part of Hardwicke’s work with FreeBar lies in tackling the issue [non-visible aspects of diversity] and encouraging chambers to ensure their online presences accurately reflect the true extent of their commitment to equality and diversity,’ adds Cameron. ‘Even if through simple acts such as tweeting in support of Pride or a news flash that chambers supports a certain diversity initiative.’

As you make your pupillage application…

So what does all of this mean for you, as you make decisions and consider whether, and where, to apply for your first steps on the path to becoming a barrister?

It should be noted that the Bar Standards Board doesn’t just set the standards for individual barristers. The list is rather dry to read and too long to reproduce on targetjobs, but the gist is that the regulator requires chambers to adhere to certain policies on equality and diversity, appoint staff to ensure that these policies are adhered to and to train recruitment panels in fair recruitment and selection. It’s something that you’ll see listed on almost every chambers’ website under a section called ‘equality and diversity’ and it doesn’t just stop there. The Bar Council, responsible for the running of the main application system, the Pupillage Gateway, is also making regular visits to chambers to discuss best practice in hiring and ensuring that diversity and equality mandates are set.

Cloisters specialise in employment and discrimination law, which means you would expect the chambers to know how to implement the right policies when it comes to hiring. Anna Beale serves as the set’s equality and diversity officer (as well as keeping her own employment law practice as a barrister) and outlines some of the work that goes on around recruitment.

‘In line with the Bar as a whole, we are taking steps to ensure that we collect diversity data about members of chambers and staff, and that we monitor the fair allocation of work among members with different protected characteristics,’ she explains. ‘We mark pupillage applications university-blind; all degrees of the same class are given the same number of marks, regardless of where they were obtained. We are also going beyond what is required by the BSB; for example, five of our ten mini-pupillages for 2018 are reserved for applicants from less advantaged backgrounds, or applicants who have a disability, or applicants who have/have had caring responsibilities.’

The employment law set is not alone in its commitment to equal hiring and equal opportunities. Many sets now outline their pupillage policies, processes and even statistics on a separate page on chambers' websites. These documents outline everything from the gender make-up of pupillage panels to the safeguards in place to ensure fair process in recruitment. They normally also include details of each chambers’ open days or evenings, formal and informal mini-pupillages and other opportunities to meet members of chambers to learn about the set, its work and pupillage.

When you do attend one of these events, you may have to adhere to the age-old etiquette of the Bar with its forbidden handshakes and 14th century buildings, but at least you shouldn’t be judged on anything other than your academics and advocacy skills.

Resources and links

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This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the targetjobs content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

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