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Breaking the bias: What a real barrister looks like

Featured ArticleBreaking the bias: What a real barrister looks like

‘sorry love which barrister are you doing work experience with?’
‘if you just wait there until your barrister arrives’
‘if you’re just here to take notes, please can you sit in the public gallery’
‘have you seen the barrister yet?’
 …. are all comments that were directed at me during my first year of practice as a barrister.

By Grace Gwynne, barrister, No5 Barristers’ Chambers

Each time I heard them, I would instantly feel shy and humiliated; my mouth would become dry and my head would feel hot. However, as embarrassing as those comments were, I would simply smile and politely inform them that I, in fact, was the barrister that they were referring to. I would observe their eyes slightly widen and see their faces become increasingly claret. Each occasion was an awkward encounter, but it was an innocent mistake. I simply did not fit the stereotype they had in their mind of what a ‘real barrister’ looks like. I am 5 years call now, 26 years old, 5’4’’ and female. I couldn’t even blame them for assuming that I couldn’t be the barrister because of this prevailing image that they had created, because it is the same stereotype that I had in my mind ten years ago. Throughout my adolescence, I had a caricature in my head of what a ‘real barrister’ looked like. Typically, it was a white, middle-class man, in his 40s, that was Oxbridge educated, extremely well-spoken, came from a wealthy background and, sometimes, born from a lineage of lawyers and judiciary. I simply do not fit that bill. I’m a young girl from Birmingham with a regional accent, not Oxbridge educated, and the first in my family to attend University. To put it frankly, I could never blame people for assuming that I wasn’t the barrister, because I possessed none of these socio-economic attributes that I thought barristers were required to have.

I vividly remember my first experience of seeing a barrister. I was sixteen years old and watching a court room drama with my family and the television screen was filled with a sea of very posh men in wigs and gowns. The main actor was fiercely cross-examining a witness in the box with methodical and, sometimes, brutal questions. I remember watching him and being in awe. In awe of his intellect and ability to be so polite whilst asking the most outrageous questions, all in order to advance his client’s case. Now although this was fictional it sparked a fire in me that I have never extinguished and has led me to become a practicing barrister today. Despite being gripped by the scene unfolding before my eyes and instantly falling in love with the idea that one could, in effect, earn a living from being a professional arguer, I couldn’t help but simultaneously notice that these barristers were all extremely posh men with not a hint of a regional accent, and there wasn’t a woman in sight. In my mind I assumed that I wouldn’t be able to pursue this career because there’s no such thing as a ‘brummie barrister’. To put it simply, I didn’t think I was good enough, but I was determined to try.

Now despite my reservations that I could never become a barrister because I had an accent and wasn’t from a wealthy family, I secured pupillage and subsequently tenancy. Then arose my next challenge, that I was young and female and at times that felt like a deadly combination. As a young female barrister, starting off my career, it became evident to me quite early on that the Bar was dominated by men. There were positive and negative experiences. There were some senior barristers that saw me as a junior practitioner and tried to help me in any way they could, but there were also those senior to me that would take advantage of my inexperience to try and manipulate me to win their own case and I never knew which type of person I would meet in Court each day. It wasn’t just opponents that were sometimes intrigued by the fact that little old me was the barrister in the case, but it was a feeling some clients had as well. Let’s say I had a thirty minute conference with a client before court, I found I was spending the first ten to fifteen minutes of that conference convincing my client that, firstly, I was even old enough to be doing the job and, secondly, that I knew what I was doing. Now, question one was naturally due to my age however question two always left me wondering ‘would there be this inherent doubt in me and my ability if I was a man?’

I suffer on a daily basis with ‘Imposter Syndrome’ and many junior barristers will be able to relate to this. ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is when you can’t believe you have the career you have. You still don’t feel either old enough or experienced enough to be allowed to do this. It’s easy to look at your peers or your opponent in a case, who may be far more experienced and senior than you and feel that you’re not quite worthy; not quite worthy of calling yourself a barrister. It’s easy to look at the people I’m surrounded by each day and think to myself ‘they’re the real barristers’ whereas sometimes I feel like I’ve not yet been accepted. That’s why when people innocently assumed I couldn’t possibly be the barrister in the case, it perpetuated the culture of ‘what a real barrister looks like’.

When we look at the current statistics of representation at the Bar, the figures are astounding. According to the BSB’s 2022 report on Diversity at the Bar, 38.8% of barristers are women however when we look at Queen’s Counsel level, only 17.9% of QCs are women. 14.7% of barristers come from minority ethnic groups with black barristers accounting for only 3.3% of that statistic. The Bar is becoming increasingly more diverse but there is still a long way to go and to say we have diversity at the Bar is far from accurate. It is extremely important to have diversity at the Bar as it is imperative to reflect the society that you represent. The reason for this is two-fold: firstly, it is important as a profession that we demonstrate that we are in touch with reality and we need to be able to find some common ground with real lived experiences our clients have in order to build that rapport with them but also, it acts as a glowing beacon to aspiring barristers that the Bar is not this exclusive club that you have to be invited to or must meet socio-economic criteria in order to belong, it is an obtainable profession for anyone from any background. The formula for becoming a barrister is a combination of hard work, resilience and drive. It matters not where in the country you were born, what accent you have or what kind of school you went to.

I recently conducted a TedX Talk called ‘Fighting for a Place in the Old Boys’ Club’ as, colloquially, that is what the Bar was, and to an extent, still is. The reason for the title is because that has always been my perception of the Bar and in the first year of practice, sadly, was my reality. As members of the profession we have a collective duty to change the narrative and shatter the perception that the Bar is this elite society and instead show the reality of the Bar; that it is a profession that is open to anyone who is committed enough to join. Collectively we need to strive to achieve change and allow the Bar to become a more diverse and accessible profession.

In effect, I never thought I would be able to become a barrister due to lacking the qualities that I deemed were crucial to possess in order to be accepted. I was fearful that any application I made would be turned away, or worse, laughed at due to the fact I did not match these fictional social requirements. Now I am a barrister I have seen from the inside that there is no such thing as ‘what a real barrister looks like’. The Bar includes a plethora of people with diverse backgrounds, different accents and various lived experiences. We have an obligation to demonstrate that the Bar is a career open to all and we have a continuing duty to diversify the Bar so that we can achieve the status of a fully accessible profession and truly reflect the society that we represent.

 Grace Gwynne, barrister, No5 Barristers’ Chambers

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