A shortage of money and negative perceptions can still be deterrents to working class barristers entering the profession, an event on diversity in the legal profession was told last week.
But all of the participating practitioners – whose backgrounds had been disadvantaged – said the Bar had been more welcoming than they expected, after initially feeling out of place and assuming an Oxbridge education was an essential prerequisite to success.
The group of two women and three men – one of colour – including three silks, said that they had no regrets after making their way into the profession. The event was held by Gresham College and chaired by Jo Delahunty QC, an emeritus professor at the college, which provides free lectures in the City of London.
Mass Ndow-Njie, who is Black, works as a barrister in the Government Legal Department and is the founder and chair of charity Bridging the Bar, which is dedicated to supporting aspiring barristers from under-represented groups.
He said he had been discouraged from pursuing his career after failing to gain a place at Oxford, which at the time he had thought was his “only route to the Bar”.
He complained there was “still a narrative” that to become a barrister one needed to achieve a first-class degree, come from wealthy background, talk and look a certain way, and potentially to be White.
Any aspiring barrister visited chambers’ websites as a first step, he observed: “But if you can’t see anyone that looks like you or comes from a similar background, it’s difficult to envisage yourself taking on the role. So I think it was the biggest barrier for me.”
However, since entering the profession, he had had a “really positive experience”. He has won awards for the quality of his work and for his dedication to pro bono work.
Also on the panel was Bar Council chair Derek Sweeting QC, a civil litigation specialist. He said he had come from a working-class background and became a barrister after spending a year in the army as a tank troop commander, from financial necessity.
The “Oxbridge trope” was still a problem, he said. Money had been a key barrier for him and the solution had been “hard work”. But overall his career had been “extremely satisfying”.
Real estate silk Brie Stevens-Hoare QC, of commercial set Hardwicke Chambers, was a feminist activist in the 1970s and also entered the profession mindful of negative stereotypes. She explained she had been determined “not to become what I perceived the Bar to be and have it change me”.
But although she had tattoos and rode a motorbike, she had generally found her fellow barristers welcoming, she said.
Professor Delahunty explained that initially she had found herself doing domestic violence work mainly “because I was skint”.
Work as a barrister was not for the fainthearted, she warned. “You need to cope with rejection because there is a winner and loser in every case. Becoming a barrister is a whole series of… knock-backs.”
The fifth barrister on the panel was personal injury specialist Toby Coupe, who was made a junior counsel to the Crown in 2018. When he first visited Lincoln’s Inn, it “felt like Harry Potter” and he was a “complete fish out of water”, he said.
He had initially done criminal work and enjoyed it, but had been tempted to move into personal injury because it paid so much better.
He had soon realised after entry that actually there was a “normal” range of people at the Bar and he doubted there was much “talking down to people” because of their humble origins any more.
Mr Coupe, a member of the Bar Council’s Leadership Programme, explained he was involved in running a fund – the Henry Scott Fund on the North Eastern Circuit – aimed at helping “struggling barristers find their feet”.