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Mentoring: how a handful of hours a year can help transform fair access to the Bar

Featured ArticleMentoring: how a handful of hours a year can help transform fair access to the Bar

Almost everyone at the Bar of 2022 will be acutely aware of the need to improve diversity in our profession, none more so than those of us who help to manage our chambers or to recruit its pupils.  As someone who sat on a pupillage committee for several years, I have first-hand experience of the intensive efforts that go into making such processes as scrupulously fair, and as likely to reveal a true aptitude for a career as a barrister irrespective of personal history, as possible.

Yet a fair recruitment process strives to elicit and assess the objective qualities required – the intellect, the tenacity, the entrepreneurial attitude – while excluding the subjective.  Typically, this is done by assessing an applicant’s qualifications, their work experience and performance in interview and tackling problem questions.  A difficulty is presented by the fact that some candidates may have enjoyed access to educational and careers experience over many years that others have not.  This naturally places them at an advantage in terms of demonstrating the objective qualities the Bar is looking for.

A complete solution to this problem is not within the Bar’s hands, but extensive work is being done across the profession to seek to improve access to it across all sectors of our society.

I firmly believe that one way barristers as individuals can make a significant contribution to these efforts, now and for the cost of only a few hours over the course of a year, is by mentoring.  During my own rocky road to pupillage, I derived invaluable assistance from a number of kindly mentors, who could have put the time spent helping me to more fruitful professional or personal use.  This year I have myself participated as a mentor in a scheme run by my chambers and five others from the planning, property and public law Bar, which aims to encourage undergraduates and postgraduates from groups that are not well represented at the Bar to consider becoming barristers.  My experience of this has left me entirely convinced that such initiatives can make a real difference to fair access to the profession.

What then can members of the Bar offer to underrepresented groups via mentoring schemes?

First, we can help demystify the profession.  Based on a recent Netflix drama, a layman’s perception of a barrister’s life may still involve us all talking in cut glass accents, being nannied by obsequious bow-tied clerks and spending our Friday nights sat in oak-panelled rooms, quaffing fine spirits from crystal glasses as we dissect our latest brief.  In fact, such depictions simply do not resonate with the life many now find at the modern Bar, with its conferences and hearings by Zoom, flexible working and wellbeing policies and, increasingly, a more casual dresscode when working other than in court or with clients.  A barrister mentor can also speak to the fact that, while issues remain to be tackled and will arise, any chambers worth its salt now strives to create inclusive working atmospheres, to support pupils and members from all backgrounds, and where discrimination does occur will take firm action to address it and and to support victims.

In addition to casting light on working conditions, we can illuminate the nature of the work itself.  In my experience, applicants from all backgrounds often have misconceptions of what work at the Bar might entail, usually idealistic ones.  Applicants from underrepresented groups may not have been able to access the sort of careers guidance and work experience that can help them understand what the role will in practice involve.  Frank and honest insight from a barrister mentor can tick this box, and help a prospective candidate realise that in fact a career at the Bar is well within their capabilities, or that they are well suited to some practice areas and perhaps less so to others.  This can only encourage those with the right qualities to apply, and increase their chances of success.

Secondly, mentors can help demystify not only the profession, but also the process of joining it.  It took me four annual rounds of pupillage applications before I was lucky enough to receive an outright offer of pupillage.  That has left me with a wealth of experience on what to do – and more importantly what not to do – when applying for a pupillage, which I am keen to share.  In my view, mentees need honest, realistic and above all practical guidance on how to maximise the chances of a successful application.  Such advice might include: an honest steer on which chambers might be targeted for applications; a frank assessment of how numerous and serious the present gaps in a mentee’s CV are; where and how they can access opportunities to acquire work, advocacy and marshalling experience; and how they can get help in preparing for pupillage interviews.

Finally, on a human level, we can help support candidates through what is typically a stressful and lengthy process, where they will certainly suffer disappointments along the way and the prize itself is far from guaranteed.  I know from personal experience – as both mentee and now mentor – that at times of doubt, a friendly word of understanding and encouragement can prove a real tonic.

I hope from the above I may have convinced at least some readers keen to help improve access to the profession that they should seriously consider mentoring.  I can say also the time commitment usually required – a minimum of only 3 hours per year on the scheme I presently mentor on – is vanishly small when weighed against the potential benefits for mentees.  From a learning perspective, over this past year I’ve gained a deeper understanding of the position of underrepresented groups and so hope I will prove a better ally for it.  I’ll add that mentoring is also fun.  On a personal level, I have immensely enjoyed my mentoring sessions with the personable and intelligent mentee I have been allocated under the scheme.

If I have convinced you, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved out there.  In addition to the scheme in which my chambers participates, a similar scheme is operated by several commercial sets, and there are organisations such as Bridging the Bar who operate mentoring programmes aimed at underepresented groups.  If your chambers already participates in such efforts, please ask to get involved.  If they don’t, why not ask your management committee whether it should and in the meantime there is nothing to stop you searching out chances to help as an individual.  Those who do are likely to gain a rewarding professional and personal experience and make a real contribution to making our profession more representative of modern society.

By Alistair Cantor, Barrister at Cornerstone Barristers

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