The Bar: Perception and obstacles

Social mobility is an issue of national and international concern, with a number of organisations, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and The Sutton Trust, monitoring its trends and making recommendations. As the Bar plays a crucial part in upholding the rule of law in the justice system, social mobility is particularly important. In order for the justice system to be perceived to be fair, it should have a range of talented individuals from a variety of backgrounds. In support of this contention, the Lammy Review into the treatment of, and outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the Criminal Justice System highlights the need for a diverse judiciary in order to increase trust in the Criminal Justice System.

This article will look at two challenges to social mobility: the perception of the Bar, and the financial obstacles.

Is the Bar’s perception a misconception?

The Bar is seen as a profession for the elite; made up of the privileged few. If society views our profession as exclusive, we miss out on attracting talented individuals who feel like their non-traditional backgrounds will hamper their chances of joining.  A way to overcome this is visibility. The Bar needs to be seen as a profession that is open to all. Those from all backgrounds, not just non-traditional, should be a part of this process.

Many chambers already leave the confines of the Temple to attend various events. However, attendance at careers fairs should not be at the elite universities alone. We need to start our focus on schools, where the dreams are first developed. We also need to attend a wider variety of universities. The quality of the advocate is not determined by the (fee-paying or grammar) school or the (Oxbridge or Russell Group) university that they attended.

The financial bar to the Bar

Another challenge to social mobility is the assumption that everybody is on a level playing field. We are not. People from non-traditional backgrounds have had to overcome obstacles at various stages prior to entering the profession. One of these obstacles is finances.

It is quite common for chambers to look favourably at pro bono work when assessing pupillage applications. However, not everyone can afford to undertake unpaid work. Similarly, unpaid mini-pupillages can be a financial burden. In our recruitment practices, consideration should be given to ensuring that a lack of pro bono or other free work experience on an application form is not automatically viewed as a negative. Equally, chambers should consider offering paid mini-pupillages to those in financial need. This could include the payment of expenses and lunch or a more substantial award.

The economic challenges do not always disappear once an individual obtains pupillage. I received a £12,000 pupillage award. Luckily, I could live at home in London, however, even with a roof over my head, there were times where I was frightened that I would be sent to a distant court as I was at the end of my overdraft. Thankfully, my chambers has increased their award significantly since, and the Bar Standards Board is raising the minimum level of award to meet the national living wage, rather than having. However, chambers may wish to consider awarding their pupils higher than the minimum award to ensure that pupillage is a viable option for everyone.

This article does not deal with all of the challenges to social mobility. However, I hope it continues the conversation on how to make the profession open to all.

Natasha Shotunde is one of the Bar Council’s #IAmTheBar Social Mobility Advocates, is a member of the Young Barristers’ Committee, and a barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill Chambers. 

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