The “power of the purse”, coming not from solicitors but from their clients, will “make the difference” in improving diversity at the Bar, a leading Black QC has said.
Professor Leslie Thomas QC said racism was not just a problem for traditional chambers, but for “more progressive” sets where barristers believed that nobody should “dare” to challenge their behaviour.
He said the “power of the purse” had made a difference in the USA, where large corporations had anti-racist policies and were saying to law firms “if you’ve got no Black faces, we’re not going to instruct you”.
He went on: “That is what will happen to predominantly White chambers in this country, particularly after Brexit when we’ll be trading more with the States. The power of the purse will lead the way.”
Professor Thomas, a QC at Garden Court Chambers and professor of law at Gresham College, said the commercial Bar, which was less diverse, needed to look at its systems of recruitment.
“If you think the best people come from the top two universities and it is ‘dumbing down’ to recruit elsewhere, the problem will not go away.”
Speaking on an Inner Temple webinar entitled ‘What does it mean to be anti-racist in a profession full of privileged people?’, Professor Thomas said racism was not just a problem for traditional chambers, but for some of the more diverse and “more progressive” sets.
He said their reaction to an accusation of racism might be: “We on the Left have been fighting the good cause. How dare you suggest that we could possibly be racist?”
He went on: “We need to get over this. We can all be racist and we can all do better.”
Professor Thomas said he disliked the label BAME for people of colour because “it lumps us all together” as if the issues facing different groups were the same.
Referring to the particularly low proportion of Black judges, he said: “Not all people of colour have the same experiences. The problem of BAME is that it tends to mask what is actually going on.”
The profession was not the same as the one he started in 30 years ago when there was much more overt racism, but young Black law students were still “really worried” about joining it.
The QC said the profession needed to understand that when people questioned the way things were being done, it wasn’t “about them as an individual being shamed, accused or judged, but a recognition that the system is unfair”.
He went on: “There needs to be a proper and honest discussion about racism. It is possible to get to the top of our profession without ever discussing it. You can’t take race off the table. It needs to be discussed.”
Professor Thomas said “defensiveness can grow astronomically” when “White privilege” was thrown into a discussion.
Examples of White privilege included “not having to worry that a taxi will not stop for you” after working late in chambers, “not having to anglicise your name on your CV” because a job application might not be considered on its merits, and being mistaken for “anyone but a barrister” when walking into court.